U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent China visit appears to have been quite uneventful, apart from the reported fight between a visiting American goodwill basketball team (unrelated to Biden’s visit) and their Chinese counterparts. Is this a portent of things to come?
Considering China’s nervousness over their investments in the U.S. treasury notes, Biden must have assured his hosts that the U.S. remained a secure economic destination. It is reported, though, that the Chinese leaders didn’t need any assurance as they have confidence in the U.S. financial system.
The U.S.’s weakened economic position, with China as its biggest creditor, does give Beijing an important political and economic leverage in their bilateral relationship. Indeed, according to a report in the Times, at the Pentagon they are already practicing economic war games about this threat “that makes America vulnerable to a new kind of bloodless but ruthless war.”
The Times’ correspondent, Helen Rumbelow, writes, “At the end of that Pentagon session, (in 2009) the 80-odd players returned from their bunkers and assessed the damage.”
And the result: “China won, without so much as reaching for a gun.”
China increasingly fancies itself as a new superpower, with fewer constraints on its power. And it is reflected in Beijing’s refusal to become part of a regional architecture conducive to stability and cooperation.
Beijing reportedly is rebuffing efforts to set up protocols and institutions for crisis-prevention in the region. According to Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state: “We continue to underscore how important that is.”
He told the Sydney Morning Herald, “More and more, Chinese and the United States operate side by side (in the region). There is a need to have predictability on the high seas and above the high seas.”
Hence the need “to put in place the institutions and policies to manage any incidents”; of which there have been quite a few recently on the high seas between the U.S. and China and between China and its regional neighbors.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia reportedly made the same point recently when addressing the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Perth. She said, “This is about shaping a future … by developing institutions, norms, rules and habits of consultations and cooperation that minimize the risk of conflict or miscalculation, manage the frictions of a growing and changing Asia-Pacific … ”
But China doesn’t seem interested. With its blanket sovereignty claims to regional seas and islands, it is not interested in a regional architecture that might constrain China.
Take the case of South China Sea and the island chains that China claims as its own. Some of China’s neighbors contest Beijing claims of sovereignty.
And there have been naval incidents between China and Vietnam, and between China and the Philippines over the ownership issue. The Chinese navy, for instance, cut off the cables of a Vietnamese survey ship in waters claimed by that country.
The Philippines too has claimed a number of Chinese naval incursions. Manila felt so threatened that it invoked its security treaty with the U.S.
China’s attempts to turn the whole of Southeast Asia into its regional enclave are forging closer strategic ties between the United States and Vietnam.
The spectacle of China’s heavy-handedness reminds one of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere around the time of the WWII, which it sought to carve out by attacking and occupying its Asian neighbors.
China, of course, is seeking it to do it more cleverly without the use, so far, of brute force, but with the same intention of dominating the region to the exclusion of other powers.
This sort of bellicosity doesn’t square with China’s often-stated declaration that it was not a “hegemonic” power and would never aspire to be one, though, lately, one doesn’t hear much of this.
Beijing has found a way around it. By calling its regional claims as sovereign waters/territory, it ceases to be a hegemonic issue, as far as China is concerned.
It is a very flexible concept and can be enlarged as China becomes more powerful and its national interests expand politically and economically into the far corners of the world.
China is developing a blue waters navy to enforce its writ, and the recent test runs of its aircraft carrier is a forerunner of things to come.
Pentagon’s report, titled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, paints a rather disturbing picture of things to come.
According to Michael Schiffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, the pace and scope of China’s military buildup is “potentially destabilizing,” not only because of its new weaponry but also due to a lack of transparency.
The U.S. as well as China’s neighbors are understandably worried. Their response is two-fold. First, some of them are drawing closer to the United States to counter China’s threat. Second, they are also beefing up their own military forces for a credible deterrence.
For instance, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are reinforcing their defenses by buying new weapons and equipment, as well as renewing their defense ties with the United States.
Vietnam and the United States are creating new strategic linkages to counter China. The Philippines is invoking its defense alliance with the United States in the face of China’s intrusions into its territorial waters around the islands it claims in the South China Sea.
If China continues to claim and assert its sovereignty over contested islands and waterways, and aggressively pursues its domination over its neighbors, the Asia-Pacific region is slated to face turbulent times in the years ahead.
China, though, will face tough resistance to its new Monroe Doctrine for the region. First of all, the United States is unlikely to let China turn the region into its enclave. At the same time, China’s neighbors will not willingly become part of its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere.
China should know that because it fought against Japan when it sought to impose its domination on China and the region.
By S. P. Seth
S. P. Seth is a commentator based in Australia. He was a senior editor at the Times of India and write for a number of newspapers on Chinese and Asia-Pacific affairs. ― Ed.