East and South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole are moving towards an increasingly evident and dangerous confrontation between the United States on the one hand and China on the other. Both countries aspire to dominance in this rapidly developing region and to preeminent military-political influence and control over its key international trade routes.
Each country has justified its expansionist policies in its own fashion.
China regards both Southeast Asia and some islands in the East China Sea as having been lost during its period of “historic weakness.” Now that its power is on the rise, China believes it is simply recovering what had been taken away from it.
And the Americans, who have recently been making decisive moves in the Asia-Pacific, believe the region is the backbone of both their security and their economic development. They fought for influence and stability here during both World War II and the Second Indochina War (1964-1973), and they have always had an active presence in both Northeast and Southeast Asia. In addition, they helped establish that successful regional bloc, ASEAN.
Existing antagonisms are compounded by the fact that the countries in the region which, by the logic of the conflict are becoming its active participants, are increasingly being drawn into them. Indicative of that is the situation in the South China Sea, where Chinese expansion is encountering resistance from states near its coast, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, which, along with China, claim the islands adjacent to their officially acknowledged territories.
These countries are trying to get the United States on their side in their conflict with China because they stand no chance of winning a direct confrontation with Beijing. They are bringing the existing latent conflict to the fore and creating conditions under which a military confrontation capable of changing the game can take the place of political maneuvering by the two countries. Recent events around the Scarborough Reef (Chinese name: Huangyan Island) provide additional evidence of that. Filipino and Chinese ships faced off against each other for nearly a week around this microscopic piece of land in the South China Sea, and Filipino politicians appealed to the United States for direct military support against China. Beijing reacted strongly to its neighbors’s appeal for US support and the resulting American promises of full support.
Relations between the United States and China are once again balancing on the brink of a serious conflict reminiscent of the situation in the spring of 2011, when a Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister said some of China’s neighbors are “playing with fire” and warned the United States not to “get burned.” The Chinese army’s newspaper, PLA Daily, said in a clear reference to the United States that China is pursuing an independent foreign policy of peace, that it will not bully the weak by being strong, but at the same time it will not patiently endure baseless carping forever.
America’s counter play against China aimed at curbing its expansionism and strengthening its own positions in the Asia-Pacific region is currently expanding across a broad front. It goes beyond support for ASEAN countries “offended” by China and arms sales to Taiwan to include a “fight for human rights in China,” with President Obama calling for the release of imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who received the Nobel Peace Prize, something that was very painful for Chinese leaders
In strategic terms, the Americans long ago moved away from a strategy of engaging China in world affairs in hopes that Beijing would agree to US terms for “owning the world,” to a strategy of encircling China by countries allied with the United States in order to effectively check Chinese expansion. In response, China has begun actively building up its naval armaments and formulated a “string of pearls” strategy that identifies the need for Chinese naval bases over a vast area stretching from Burma to Pakistan in order to control the routes through which Middle Eastern oil is shipped to China.
At the same time, despite the obvious significant antagonisms, mutual struggle and conflict between the United States and China, the reverse side of the coin cannot be ignored. The events around Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea demonstrated that the two countries are unwilling to enter an open confrontation and will try to avoid one. Both Beijing and Washington clearly understand that an open conflict would jeopardize the entire system of US-China trade and economic relations that has been built up over the course of many years (trade between the two countries exceeds $400 billion per year). The damage to both China and the United States from the curtailment of business ties would outweigh any possible image victories in the South China and East China Seas. Therefore, despite all of Manila’s efforts to drag the United States into its risky game with China, Washington will try to distance itself from the conflict as long as possible.
That is the effect when American officials explain that they will only defend the officially recognized borders of their ally — the Philippines — and their mutual defense treaty does not cover direct US intervention in a fight for the disputed islands. The Americans will intervene only if the situation becomes catastrophic for Manila. However, that could very well happen, considering how poorly matched China and the Philippines are.
The situation with China is more complicated. On the one hand, China clearly has recently been seeking compromise with the United States. Not long ago, the main Party organ, Renmin Ribao, even said that there will be no chaos in the Asia-Pacific region if China and the United States understand each other. On the other hand, China’s leaders believe that whereas trade and economic ties in Sino-American relations are improving, strategic trust is not, and the two countries experiencing a “trust deficit.”
According to Chinese analysts, the trust deficit creates tension in Sino-American relations when rivalry rather than cooperation comes to the fore. The situation seriously weakens the position of those in the Chinese leadership who favor compromise with the United States, and more radical political forces that are prepared to go much further in a confrontation with the United States than are the current leaders gain ground as a result.
Much more is at stake for the current regime in China — both politically and economically. China has driven itself into a dead end with its stubborn refusal to compromise on the territorial issue and its constant references to the “inviolability” of the Chinese frontiers that were arbitrarily drawn in the South China Sea in 2009 and that encompass 80% of its waters. Beijing cannot afford to also get involved in a war during this period of intense internal struggle over the transfer of power to a new generation of leaders, nor can it simply take a step back because radicals within the country have for so long accused the Chinese leaders of being spineless.
The status quo can only be threatened if the entire range of antagonistic relations with the United States ceases being rational and becomes emotional and a key theme for political forces aspiring to power against a background of sharp differences and increased Chinese nationalism and fundamentalism among Party leaders. Should that happen, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region will face the risk of a serious and very dangerous military conflict between the United States and China.
Dmitry Mosyakov is a Professor, Doctor of Science (History) and Director of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.