The latest in the on-going tensions in the South China Sea. Yet, even as Japan stands against China, the United States still remains distracted (and maybe disenchanted) with putting so much diplomatic emphasis on the region. Even as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rails Beijing on issues like CyberSecurity and the Law of Sea, President Obama hardly emphasized China or the Far East in his West Point Commencement Speech.
Warnings are great, but the muscle has not appeared to back it up
#AceNewsServices – TOKYO – May 31 – Two Chinese coastguard ships sailed into disputed waters off Japan-administered islands in the East China Sea Saturday, officials said, as the United States warned Beijing over increasing territorial assertiveness.
The Japanese coastguard said the vessels entered the 12-nautical-mile band of territorial waters around one of the Senkaku islands, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyus, around 10 am (0100 GMT).
Chinese vessels and aircraft have regularly approached the East China Sea archipelago — thought to harbour natural resources — since Tokyo nationalised some of the islands in September 2012, setting off the latest spate of incidents in a long-running territorial dispute.
Saturday’s incursion was the first of official Chinese vessels into the disputed waters since May 2 and the 12th this year.
China is also locked in territorial disputes, in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely.
There have been…
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The essence of “great power” is the ability to project power beyond their one’s borders upon countries beyond them. Chinese history is famous for being the center of Asian civilization for centuries, where small nations and tribes would give homage to the Emperor’s Court with gifts in return for security. It is also marked by invasions and subjugations of these groups, from Vietnam to Korea and even the Mongol tribes in modern Mongolia. The apex of this prosperity was reached when Admiral Zheng He led an armada of Chinese ships across the South China See and into the Indian Ocean. There, they displayed fabulous riches of the Chinese culture and economic prowess. More importantly, however, they showcased the might of the Middle Kingdom and created the first instance of a great overseas empire, long before the Portuguese, Spanish and British ever founded their colonial empires.
Today’s modern China does not possess a great navy like then. Only recently, in academic, policy and now government circles, have conversations been opened on reconstituting a great navy. Like several of the great naval powers before, China is driven by intense interest protect it’s shores and project power into the Near Seas for strategic defense against outsiders. The central theme is that China is reliving not only the era of Zheng He, but also the lives of past seafaring nations that forged power by gunboat diplomacy and economic imperialism. Ironically, it intensely driven by business,seeking opportunities overseas while pressuring Beijing to protect them. The centrality of history, as Henry Kissenger remarks in On China, is a justification for why China must relive the glory of being a peaceful diplomat for protection, and economic patron. No place is a better example of this strategy than the Indian Ocean.
From Mogadishu to Malacca
China has possessed extraordinary opportunities to challenge the existing international regime by expanding its influence to the Indian Ocean. The region is arguably the most important conduit for international trade in the world. Oil from the Persian Gulf passes east through the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, around India, passing barges of raw materials from China and other Southeast Asian countries bound for the west. The Malacca Strait and several adjoining inlets in Indonesia are the most well trafficked areas of the world for trade, processing more ships and cargo than either the Suez or Panama Canals. They also pose the greatest security risks, especially to maritime piracy that is prevalent in both the South China Sea and the Arabian Sea.
If business is the driver for overseas expansion, than the phenomenon of globalization has thrust China into a position for exerting its own influence on Indian Ocean. Chinese businesses and government aid programs have been involved in local development across the region in places like Sri Lanka, Burma, Pakistan and the Seychelles, according to journalist Geoff Dyer. The most significant business development is the development of an overland pipeline from Ramree, Burma to Yunnan, China, providing an opportunity to ship oil overland and bypass the strait. Ramree is just one of several “pearls” Beijing is eager to cultivate. That eagerness in part is influenced by Chinese commercial interests that have been steadily gaining influence of policymaking in the Chinese Communist Party.
While claimed by the Chinese government to be an entirely peaceful and commercial development, it will naturally require military forces to ensure protection of these assets, as past empires have done. Like the British, who used naval power to caw the Chinese to subservience in the Opium Wars, Beijing will be looking to employ its own naval power to protect its merchants. Today, China is involved in a number of anti-piracy missions alongside NATO and the United States along the coast of Somalia and the Arabian Sea. Beijing has not long enjoyed a strong navy since the days of the Ming and should be seeking every opportunity to build the institutional experiences of its fleets. The addition of the Liaoning, its first fast carrier, is a signal of Chinese intentions to mark economic growth with projection of their own strength. It is still decades away from having the carrier groups and naval prowess possessed by the United States, according to Mark O’Hanlon of Brookings Institute.
The Need for Balance
Strategically, the Indian Ocean is an irresistible opportunity for China to develop an overseas presence as the United States had done in the Far East over the last sixty years. The distractions of the War on Terror and Afghanistan created openings that China has been willing to exploit over the years, including political opportunities to create friends in the region. Pakistan is a case an point, due to the deteriorating relationship with the U.S. and ever present specter of India as a major regional power in South Asia. Finally, most of the countries are not bound by bilateral defense and security agreements that constrain movement and expansion like those that exist in the Western Pacific. We need only look at the current disputes between China and Japan to understand Chinese aggression is directly colliding with an essential U.S. ally.
The United States has been accused of following a containment policy towards China, even by Vietnam and Australia who remain on close ties with both countries. Focusing China’s attention on the Indian Ocean might be advantageous to taking attention away from Japan and the South China Sea. Containing China through the pivot to Asia might attract an international incident, endangering both the stability of the region and U.S.-Chinese economic relations. Allowing Beijing to cultivate their assets in the Indian
Ocean provides breathing space that could pacify Chinese parties clamoring for expansion in the near seas. The military presence required for anti-piracy missions could also be a useful way to test Chinese military intentions and focus them on peaceful policing of the sea lanes. By appeasing economic interests, we can demonstrate our continued willingness to work with, not bow, to Beijing.
President George W. Bush ignored China’s interests in favor pressing the war on terror. Now the Obama Administration is reentering the traditional sphere of American foreign policy, engaging allies that have felt abandoned to a powerful “big brother” figure in China. His visits to ASEAN countries are answering fears of a second Cold War scenario or a repeat of the Ukrainian Crisis with either Senkaku or the South China Sea. An opportunity to deflect Chinese interest in the Near Seas gains time to engage Beijing in a long-term solution for peace in the Far East. Balance of Power politics is about influencing the priorities of other states through some level of deterrence, whether it be by military, political or economic means. To play the great game with China, dangling the pearls of the Indian Ocean on our own terms could serve as a plausible foreign policy tactic for the administration.
Washington’s “Pivot to Asia,” the redirection of U.S. focus to the Far East, opens a new (but familiar) chapter of U.S.-Chinese relations. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s trip to the Far East has been part of that larger program to reassure our Asian allies of American support in the region. While filled with sharp words for his Chinese counterpart, Sec. Hagel has helped assuage fears of a miscalculated military crisis. Nonetheless, China’s assertive foreign policy and growing military muscle has created an anxious environment for Asian and Pacific countries, especially those of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan and India. These events signal a closing to the Cold War norm of hegemonic struggles of superpowers or the post-Cold War order based on American leadership. Instead, we are slowly returning to the era of Great Power Politics, threatening the global order molded on American free trade, the U.S. dollar and American security.
Historically, China has always been a great power, exerted influence beyond its borders, and been a cultural and economic beacon to its neighbor. The interruption of European and American interference in Chinese affairs led to a steep decline of Imperial China, followed by forty years of civil war and warlordism. The revival under the post-Mao Communist Party leadership demonstrated that China is an economic power and political force in global affairs. Hu Jintao, the new Premier of the People’s Republic, at the 2009 National Military Parade in Beijing, exclaimed: “The Chinese People have stood up!” When comparing Hu’s words with those of Deng Xiaoping, former premier and the last of the old revolutionaries, it marked a tone of change in Chinese attitudes. Such words spoke of a China that had risen from the ashes of colonialism and internal strife, coming of age as a world power.
The rhetoric speaks for itself as a major foreign policy challenge to the United States and its allies in the region. Since the end of World War II (and even stretching back to World War I), the U.S. has maintained strong alliances with the nations in the Far East, especially Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia. Our ships have patrolled the high seas ensuring stability in predominantly important maritime trade that has been the lifeline of the globalized market. Just recently, Secretary Hagel toured the first Chinese aircraft carrier that is also the newest addition to an increasingly assertive naval military presence in the western Pacific. Compared to downsizing of the U.S. armed forces in the wake of changing global challenges, China’s military presence is threatening to end the peaceful and stabilizing U.S. protection of maritime trade.
The ASEAN Way in Question
The vigorous Chinese assertion of strength has sent shock waves to our Allies, especially ASEAN. ASEAN has long attempted to balance economic, social, and diplomatic cooperation through a policy called the “ASEAN Way.” Its ten member states launched this policy to maintain individual state sovereignty, or security from foreign interference in domestic affairs, while allowing them to pursue economic expansion. According to economists, ASEAN as a bloc is the eighth largest economy in the world, even at the most formative stage of intergovernmental, regional integration. In many respects, it aspires to become the “European Union” of Southeast Asia.
However, this arrangement has been viable as long as China remained weak while the U.S. remained committed. These nations are now vulnerable to the new challenge presented by China. Just like the U.S. and Japan, ASEAN faces competition with a power motivated by geopolitical ambitions and a strong sense of nationalism. Furthermore, the disputes over the South China Sea demonstrate a Chinese willingness to exert its own rules over that of international law, and intimidating its neighbors into passive acceptance of its status quo. In the perspective balance of power, ASEAN may be entering a new transition not unfamiliar to our friends in Europe during the Cold War.
The Tigers and the Eagle
The revival of China’s ambitions to make decisions on the world stage has made it our greatest geopolitical challenge since the Soviet Union. We need to assure our allies in the region, including Japan, that we can stand by them while countering Beijing’s ambitions to make the rules in international diplomacy. Furthermore, we need to work to avoid military conflict in two of the most economically important regions of the world, the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Left unchecked, it is only a matter of time before Japan expands its military prowess and Taiwan get fidgety over Chinese ships knocking on its territorial waters. Equally important is how Chinese expansion will conflict with India, whose motivation to garner influence, demonstrated by the Look East policy is equally fervent.
As these titans collide, the nations of Southeast Asia are likely to recalculate their own geopolitical positions. ASEAN may be more conscious about re-evaluating the its ASEAN Way policy and favoring closer economic and security agreements. The presence of the Soviet Union was a factor in pushing the European Community to strengthen their own political bonds, even though the Union formed after the Cold war. The security situation around the South China Sea Dispute is a major motivator and could be pressed by increased American support for these friends and allies in the region. The call by Japan for Joint-Military Exercises (JME) with the Philippines and Taiwan could be another attractive opportunity to garner a new ally. Finally, we cannot discount India and their role in this tug-of-war for the western Pacific, so they will need to be included in the current American foreign policy calculus.
Fashion the Shield
In a small conversation regarding U.S.-Chinese relations, a Chinese officer made these remarks to former Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet: “You, the U.S. take Hawaii East and we, China, will take Hawaii West and the Indian Ocean…If anything happens there, you let us know, and we will let you know what happens over there.” Such an event would cripple nearly a century of U.S. policymaking in the regions and be inherently destabilizing. Chinese control of the western Pacific, followed by India securing the Indian Ocean threatens to end peaceful trade security and that of our partners in the Far East. The naval presence must be maintained and strengthened as the foundation of security for the Far East.
A stronger and united ASEAN, organized around similar structure and connectivity compared to its European counterpart, will be a great American ally. Its combined economic and military strength would make it a strong regional power with stronger influence over its own geographic conflict. Finally, it provides a buffer that enhances U.S. economic, political and military interests and a united front against Chinese incursions into the Pacific.
The U.S. should reach out to India and continue developing a strong partnership for regional security. The decline in relations with Pakistan provides opportunities for flexibility in South Asia, especially as Beijing feels empowered to challenge Delhi on Look East. The future for Indo-U.S. relations will be based on economics power and that can only take place while the Malaccas and surrounding seas remain secure and unimpeded. We propose continued confidence-building measures through JMEs and cooperation on piracy.
According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, no great power has ever existed without guaranteeing its own security of trade and commerce through sea power. Theodore Roosevelt found these words invaluable advice when launching the Great White Fleet on its 1907 whirlwind tour of the globe.Unfortunately for us, the Chinese have equally taken to heart these words of advice in attempting to secure their own economic and political destiny. However, they have also been the downfall of powers such as Germany, who pursued this course to great peril and loss in two World Wars. Our vigilance and strength will not suffice if we are deter China from pursuing what is a natural instinct of a great power to expand. We must fashion a “Shield” of allies while maintaining our diplomatic engagement with Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and our other allies. The delicate moment of transition is here and we should dare not miss on the opportunities to continue exercising leadership in the Pacific Ocean.
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