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China gains from U.S.-Russia face-off

by Brahma Chellaney

The U.S.-backed putsch that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and triggered the Russian military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula has shifted the international spotlight from Asia’s festering fault lines and territorial feuds to the new threat to European peace. The crisis over Ukraine cannot obscure Asia’s growing geopolitical risks for long.

In fact, the clear geopolitical winner from the U.S.-Russian face-off over Ukraine will be an increasingly muscular China, which harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by other Asian states. Whether it is strategic islands in the East and South China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

China will gain significantly from a new U.S.-Russian cold war, just as it became a major beneficiary from America’s Cold War-era “ping-pong diplomacy,” which led to President Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Mao Zedong in 1972 in an “opening” designed to employ a newly assertive, nuclear-armed China to countervail Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has followed a conscious policy to aid China’s rise — an approach that remains intact today, even as America seeks to hedge against the risk of Chinese power sliding into arrogance.

A new U.S.-Russian cold war will leave greater space for China to advance its territorial creep in Asia.

Asia’s geopolitical risks were highlighted recently by the comments of both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who noted that Britain and Germany went to war in 1914 despite being economically interdependent in the same way Japan and China now are — and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III, who compared China’s territorial creep with Nazi Germany’s expansionism.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets.

With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Asia must find ways to get rid of its baggage of history so as to chart a more stable and prosperous future.

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Just as Russia’s Crimean intervention challenges that principle, renewed attempts in Asia to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

Aquino, drawing an analogy between China’s territorial assertiveness and the failure of other powers to support Czechoslovakia against Hitler’s territorial demands in 1938, pointedly asked in a New York Times interview last month: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?”

At the root of the rising Asian geopolitical tensions is the fact that Asia is coming together economically but not politically. Indeed, it is becoming more divided politically. Even as the region’s economic horse seeks to take it toward greater prosperity, its political horse is attempting to steer it in a dangerous direction.

This dichotomy is a reminder that economic interdependence and booming trade by itself is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between states. Unless estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to stabilize their relationship.

The slowing of Asian economic growth underscores the risks arising from this fault line. The risks are heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

That the risks posed by Asia’s new fault lines are serious can be seen from the situation that prevailed in Europe 100 years ago. Europe then was even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I.

Abe, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was thus right to warn that economic interdependence cannot by itself prevent war. But by implicitly comparing China with pre-1914 Imperial Germany, Abe sought to gain the moral high ground by depicting Japan as a democratic state that, like Britain a century ago, is seeking to checkmate the expansionist ambitions of a rapidly rising authoritarian power.

The paradox is that China, with its aggressive modernization strategy, appears to be on the same path that made Japan a militaristic state a century ago, with tragic consequences for the region and Japan itself.

Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) created a powerful military under the national slogan “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military.”

The military eventually became so strong as to dictate terms to the civilian government. The same could unfold in China, where the generals are becoming increasingly powerful as the Communist Party becomes beholden to the military for retaining its monopoly on power.

China only highlights the futility of political negotiations by overtly refusing to accept Asia’s territorial status quo. After all, frontiers are significantly redrawn not at the negotiating table but through the use of force, as China has itself demonstrated since 1949.

Yet, U.S. President Barack Obama’s repeated warnings to Moscow over Crimea, including holding out the threat to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically, contrasts starkly with his silence on China’s aggression, including its seizure of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal, and its establishment of an air-defense zone extending to territories it covets but does not control.

Obama has not said a word on these Chinese actions, even though they targeted U.S. allies, the Philippines and Japan. Unlike Ukraine, these are countries with which the United States has mutual defense treaties.

Obama’s “pivot” to Asia —rebranded as “rebalancing” — remains more rhetorical than real.

Make no mistake: Asia’s resurgent territorial and maritime disputes underscore that securing Asian peace and stability — like in Europe — hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders. Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Asian Juggernaut.”

  • 1derer

    Referring to what happened in the Ukraine as a “U.S.-backed putsch” that disrupted “constitutional order” is a great way to discredit yourself immediately. The Ukrainian Parliament had the opportunity to call Yanukovych’s ouster illegitimate, and they instead supported the move. How are you a more credible analyst of Ukraine’s legitimacy than the legislative arm of its government, which represents and has a mandate from the actual Ukranian people?

    • JoeMcIntyre

      I agree that it’s odd to refer to the Ukrainian situation as US backed; of course the administration’s hamfisted and bellicose posture hasn’t done much to assuage suspicions, but it does seem to be fundamentally organic. At least with current information.
      However, the Parliament’s vote to depose Yanukovych was in fact unconstitutional. They needed to have supreme court backing but went with a straight up/down vote instead.

      • zer0_0zor0

        Nuland’s brash statements along with the implication of the CIA in the so-called “Orange revolution” would seem to be proof enough of a clandestine US role. And the over-the-top reaction about events in Crimea add emphasis to that.

        As you and the author point out, the people in power in Kiev are there by unconstitutional means, so Putin is correct, Obama and Kerry are wrong.

        The author seems to have missed the fact that the US garnered Chinese support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, obviously because of the implications for China vis-a-vis the Uighurs an Tibetans.

        That doesn’t have anything to do with China’s disputes in the South and East Seas.

        What’s that saying about politics and strange bedfellows?

  • Viva75

    A very interesting and well written article. Potentially very scary days ahead for the Asia region, as highlighted. China is definitely watching Russia and how the region and world at large responds to the situation that is unfolding in Ukraine. Unfortunately events in Crimea so far are favoring Russia’s unilateral, militaristic intervention under the guise of very questionable reasons. Russia’s military is powerful enough to seize, hold and deter any retaliation, especially in a smaller, more focused manner. Added that the US and EU have been slow and uncoordinated only plays into Russia’s hands also.

    China are surely noting all that transpires in Ukraine and will put it to future use in their own territorial disputes. And when they feel confident enough that their military capabilities can effectively seize, hold and deter…look out. There’s no doubt about it, something is going to give within the region within the next five years, it’s just a matter of how big it will be.

  • Yoshiko

    Unofficially most experts say and sure that all this situation wih Crimea was started right after very suspicious trip of former ukrainian president Yanukovich to Beijing.
    The truth is that former ukrainian president in fact sold whole Crimea island to China, in return for very big investments and credits in Ukraine. China wanted to be present in Black Sea and they like Crimea – the history of chinese attempts to make a very big investment projects on Crimea can be found from the start of 2000′s. For China the Crimea – was the key to abandoned former soviet military bases on island (which preserved there in pristine condition) and even one sea military object for construction of submarines which was abandoned too by russians and ukrainians. Such attempts are very dangerous for Russia (and their sea fleet on island) and even Europe with USA. Noone need chinese submarines or sea fleet in european waters – that’s why current situation in Crimea (under Russia control) is very important and even beneficial for USA and Europe. All this sanctions hysteria is just the “play” for public eyes. The main factor of Crimean operation – is to stop China for entering the Black Sea, noone need such historic event of first asian fleet in european waters to be even happened.
    Don’t forget that first sea aircraft carrier China bought from Ukraine – this ship is from a former soviet sea fleet which Ukraine gets after USSR collapse by inheritance. The most ridiculous is that Ukraine sold this aircraft military ship to China by the price of scrap metal and even some soviet military weapon systems wasn’t removed – so China in Ukraine always stalking for any soviet military technologies – someone needed to stop this because it goes too far.
    If you wanted to find – who’s guilty of the growing military presense of China on sea and in internal Asian region altogether – blame the Ukraine – ukrainians army generals provide their arsenals with soviet military weapons to chinese representatives like some supermarkets of soviet tech in which China is very interested even today – and this is happening many years.

  • Raymond Choong

    The author obviously is biased in his opinion when it comes to Asia real trouble-maker. It is the rightist war-hungry Abe government that is threatening the peace of Asia. He conveniently ignored the fact that Japan history revisionist attitude that is causing tension between Japan and it’s neighbour. Even US ally Korea is of no talking terms with Japan, not to mention billion of Chinese and citizens of Chinese descents that live not only in Asia, but all over the world, including US.

    • Mike Gigante

      Yawn. Sorry, but Japan does not, in general, try to revise “history” in its textbooks.

      http://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a00703/

      Also, when China stops trying to cover up the Tianamen Square Riots/Massacre, then they can start pretending to be the champion of human rights and truth. Not before.

      The only country that is causing problems is China. They’re blowing everything out of proportion to strengthen their claims to Japanese and Filipino territory. The entire world knows it. Hell, Australia came out and called China on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Boon-Tee-Tan/1068880297 Boon Tee Tan

    Japan Times said, “China harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by other Asian states.” Is that so?

    Such ridiculous slant can only come from Japan which has been prone to change history textbook and deny Nanjing massacre unrelentingly. Incredibly farcical. (btt1943)

    • Mike Gigante

      China is using WWII as a means of justifying its aggressive posture in Asia. It is using this as a means of strengthening its claims to Japanese and Filipino territory. Those are objective facts.

      You mean like how the PRC covers up the Tianamen Square Massacre? By the way, Japan doesn’t, in general, whitewash history in their textbooks. You should check your facts.

      http://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a00703/