KANEOHE, HAWAII – When the political history of the 21st century is written, it may well trace the tipping point toward war in Asia to our present decade.
According to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: “No one can say what will happen in the next 20 years. Quite possibly the status quo will prevail, with repeated brinkmanship and occasional tensions, but hopefully no war. But worse outcomes are easily imaginable.”
He was referring to conflict on the Korean Peninsula and between Japan and China, but such a conflagration could well involve South Korea and Japan’s ally, the United States either directly or indirectly. Indeed, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, believes that the risk of war in Asia will increase over the next 10 years as the U.S. military technological edge over China erodes.
What are the warning signs and is there anything that can be done to avoid this catastrophe? Signs indicative of looming conflict are deepening distrust, vitriolic nationalistic exchanges, veiled threats and provocations. Let’s look at what has happened just recently.
The annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is supposed to be the premier regional forum for “building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation” as well as “engendering a sense of community.” During the May 30-June 1 Dialogue, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scolded China for undertaking “destabilizing unilateral actions” and, in this context, added that “we oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion or the threat of force to assert their claims.”
Hagel went on to warn that “the United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged.” He also supported Japan in its bid to expand its security role in the region. Hagel reiterated that “the U.S. opposes any effort by any nation to restrict overflight or freedom of navigation.”
Earlier in May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had drawn a parallel between Russia’s invasion of Crimea and China’s muscle-flexing in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
China responded in kind. Deputy Chief of General Staff Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong said he was angered by the remarks of both Hagel and Abe. He called Hagel’s remarks a “form of provocation,” asserting that “this speech is full of hegemony, full of incitements, threats, [and] intimidation.”
Regarding Abe’s remarks, Xinhua news service added “This should be all the more worrying when it becomes the banner of a country that invaded and occupied a large part of Asia and still is reluctant to come to terms with its militant past.”
It seems that confidence and trust are being eroded rather than enhanced by such forums. These caustic exchanges were over the top and if they are any sign of what lies beneath, the region is drifting toward disaster.
China’s actions in the East and South China Seas have raised tensions, but the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is being violated by all claimants.
The Philippines and Vietnam allege that China has acted contrary to the provision that “the parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
China responds that the Philippines has violated the part stipulating that disputes should be resolved between “sovereign states directly concerned” and that Vietnam may be on the verge of doing so. Given this context, physical clashes are more likely than progress on a robust, binding Code of Conduct.
China views the actions by Vietnam and particularly U.S. ally the Philippines as provocations encouraged by the U.S. — particularly by its “pivot to Asia,” which China believes is destabilizing the region. China argues that these disputes are none of the U.S.’ business — at least directly. Whatever China’s transgressions, they do not appear to be a “serious threat to freedom of navigation” as the U.S. and others have alleged.
China views Hagel’s remarks as insulting and hypocritical: Hagel’s warning to China to stop “violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation” flies in the face of the U.S.’ almost daily drone and cyberstrikes into sovereign states, and the litany of U.S. military intervention in sovereign countries to alter political conditions in its favor.
Hagel’s speech included a warning that the U.S. will “not tolerate any attempt to alter the status quo by force or coercion.” This was echoed by Abe in his opening speech to the forum and was assumed to refer to China’s aggressive actions regarding the Japan-China Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute in the East China Sea. Tension has increased there due in part to the frequent “penetration” of the 12-nm territorial sea around the islands by China’s civilian patrol vessels.
These statements completely ignore China’s view that it is Japan that refuses to acknowledge that there is a dispute over the sovereignty of the islands. Moreover, to China, it is Japan that has altered the status quo there by arresting a Chinese ship’s captain in September 2010, “nationalizing” three of the islands in September 2012, and in October 2013 threatening to shoot down China’s drones over the disputed area.
Worse, China thinks the U.S. “pivot” encourages Japan to be more aggressive. As everyone except Japan’s leadership seems to know and understand, China harbors deep resentment bordering on hatred regarding Japan’s horrific invasion and occupation before and during World War II and would welcome an opportunity for “payback.”
The concepts of “status quo” and “international order” are in the eyes of the beholder. Used in a regional sense, the U.S. apparently means the situation in which it is the dominant actor and patron. Its status quo is essentially a continuation of its Cold War policy and posture in the region — a substantially forward-deployed military presence and a hub-and-spoke alliance structure.
China assumes this is what the U.S. means by that political phrase and that the U.S. does not and will not recognize China’s enhanced status nor respect its “core interests.”
The status quo in the region is certainly changing in an action-reaction dynamic, and all parties involved are being somewhat disingenuous about what they are doing to change it and why. The U.S. and China are clearly on opposite sides of a major political discontinuity — and perhaps history.
The U.S. is yesterday’s and today’s sole superpower, but its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding. Moreover, Japan is trying to regain its status as a “real country” with the full powers of “defense” while shedding its militaristic past. That is proving to be quite a challenge.
China is a developing country that views the U.S.-led Western-developed world with both envy and suspicion. Its suspicion translates to fear that the West wants to constrain — if not contain China’s rapid economic and military progress and that it wants to undermine its “socialist” political system.
Moreover, China perceives that it is being constrained by the international world order and laws that favor a system developed and sustained by the West.
China’s leaders believe that China represents the future — not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. China’s leaders believe it is China’s destiny to regain its prominence in the region. Though the U.S. and China have relatively opposite trajectories — one slowly declining, the other rapidly rising — they are in this brief transitory moment in human history intersecting and may even be tangential.
Clearly the two have fundamentally different views of the principles upon which a “new relationship” should be built. They — and we — are thus at a tipping point in history and in the stability of the “international system.” To avoid disaster the U.S. should help China moderate its stance by accommodating to some degree its regional interests and aspirations — in short, by sharing power. When, on what issues, how and how much are challenges for the deep thinkers in the U.S. and China to ponder and negotiate.
For its part, China needs to accept and accommodate genuine U.S. efforts to share power and prove by its actions that it is not seeking military conflict.
Strategic “flexibility” by both would help realize the possibility of a “new” type of major power relationship as proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Sunnylands summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in June last year.
Otherwise a collision of “core” interests is inevitable with possible disastrous consequences for the region and the world.
Mark Valencia is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.