US pivots toward trouble in West Pacific

Sep 26, 2012

By Jian JunboSHANGHAI – The dispute over the territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku Islands in Japan) in the East China Sea continues to escalate. There is not the slightest sign that either side wants to back off a bit.

Now more and more people in China are beginning to question the role of the United States in this territorial dispute with Japan. Washington repeatedly says it takes no side in it. But it has adopted Senkaku as its official name for the disputed islands and proclaimed that the US-Japan Security Treaty applies to them. And recently, the US and Japan held joint military drills focusing on seizing islands, suggesting that “the United States intends to put pressure on China”, commented Rear Admiral Zhang

Zhaozhong, of China’s National Defense University.

From China’s perspective, it may not be coincidental that its long-standing but dormant territorial disputes with Japan and other neighboring countries in the South China Sea suddenly intensified after Washington announced its “return to Asia” strategic shift. This further raises the suspicion that the US move is aimed at containing China’s rise.

The administration of US President Barack Obama first announced its “return-to-Asia” strategic shift in 2009 at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Singapore. On that occasion, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed that after being distracted for a decade in the Middle East, Washington planned to re-pivot toward Asia. Afterward, Washington announced that American soldiers would be pulled out of Afghanistan and Iraq by 2014, and more military facilities and personnel would be deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.

In May of this year, Obama announced a plan to cut American troops in Europe and increase the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, in accordance with the new “Asia pivot” strategy. For instance, about US$12 billion would be spent to upgrade the military base in Guam, thousands of soldiers and advanced military facilities would be based in Darwin, Australia, and six aircraft carriers would be deployed in the Pacific Ocean, despite the fact that the US would reduce its total number of aircraft carriers from 12 to 11.

Implementing the new strategy, the US has also largely enhanced military ties and cooperation with its allies in Asia, especially Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, through reaffirming their shared defense responsibilities, carrying out joint military exercises and selling more advanced weapons to them.

The new Asia-pivot strategy also put a stamp on the US-dominated regional free-trade area – the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP), which originated from the FTA of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) – in which China, as Asia’s biggest economy, is excluded.

It is with America’s upgraded and more ambitious engagement in Asia and the Pacific that China appears to be starting to face more external challenges in this region.

Since last year, China and the Philippines have been locked in a territorial dispute over Huanyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, disputes over some other waters and islands in that sea between Vietnam and China have also soured relations between the two socialist countries. And this year, the Diaoyu issue has become a regional focus.

Noticeably, behind all the conflicts associated with China and its neighbors in recent years, there is the big shadow of the US, which seems to have suspiciously poured fuel on the flames.

For example, amid the bilateral territorial disputes between China and the Philippines and Vietnam, the US, appearing as a “mediator”, has always intervened just in time to make the situation more complicated. It has virtually encouraged the Philippines and Vietnam to challenge China’s “red line” continuously by strengthening its relationship with these two countries. The US has reinforced its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, providing advanced patrol ships to that country and carrying out joint naval exercises with it, as well as deepening military links with Vietnam.

And now, as the China-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu Islands escalates, the US is openly lending its support to Japan by proclaiming that the US-Japan Security Treaty covers the Senkakus.

With the sole superpower in the world actually taking sides, territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas have quickly escalated into serious conflicts between Beijing and its concerned neighbors. Manila’s politicians landed on a disputed island and renamed it. Vietnamese nationalists launched street demonstrations against China. Reportedly Vietnam conducted 106 invasions of China-claimed waters and islands last year to provoke Beijing. And now, Tokyo has “nationalized” the Diaoyu Islands to change the status quo unilaterally, which Beijing sees as a deliberate provocation, because the two countries agreed to shelve the dispute over the Diaoyus and keep the status quo when they normalized their diplomatic ties 40 years ago.

Likewise, China has always maintained that the status quo should be kept and disputes shelved in the South China Sea. But the US, out of its own interests, seems to encourage the other parties to change the status quo, forcing China into tit-for-tat reactions.

It thus may not be too far-fetched to say that the East and South China seas might have remained calm without the US “mediation” to implement its Asia-pivot strategy.

If Washington really wanted to play the honest broker in these conflicts, why would it want to sell advanced weapons to Manila and strengthen military relations with Hanoi and Tokyo in the first place? Why would it always reprimand China when such conflicts occur? If Washington can justify its support of these countries as meant to help the so-called weak against the strong, what would it think if China supported Iran or North Korea when they ran into conflict with the United States?

The fact is that before the US began to carry out it “return-to-Asia” strategy, stability between China and its neighbors in East and Southeast Asia had generally been maintained, and regional integration seemed under way through Beijing’s dialogues with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the China-Japan-South Korea strategic talks. Disputes on sovereignty over waters or islands had basically been put aside or overshadowed by economic cooperation.

Nevertheless, while China and its Asian neighbors have become increasingly interdependent economically and benefit from one another, most of these countries don’t trust China in regard to security matters, especially with its fast rise. There is a gap between China’s economic relations and its political relations with its neighbors. Therefore, the US has moved to take advantage of this gap, trying to enlarge it through its partiality tactics and proxy policy. That is, by its return to Asia, the US is not helping to narrow the gap but is broadening it instead, making more trouble in the West Pacific.

A careful review of China’s positions and claims on islands and waters in the South and East China seas will show that Beijing has not changed its stance for decades. It is not new. It should also be noted that similar positions and claims are also held by Taiwan, a democratic island politically separated from mainland China. What does this mean? It means Beijing’s positions over territorial disputes have nothing to do with its rise, its political system or its internal politics. The challenge is from the outside – its neighbors, with the backing of the US.

If the price of Washington’s “return to Asia” is taking an antagonistic policy toward China and damaging China’s core interests, this will in return undermine America’s national interests. Cui Tiankai, China’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, recently said in Hong Kong that “China is an Asian country by the Pacific. Both Asia and the Pacific are our family and our root.” This indicates that China cannot retreat from any threats and challenges to its interests in this region. If the US doesn’t seriously care about China’s concerns and interests here, its new Asia-pivot policy will destabilize the Asia-Pacific region and ultimately damage all countries’ interests.

To demonize China at the global level by its discourse of superiority and hegemony, and then to challenge China’s core interests in the Pacific, could be seen as an emotional response to China’s rise. But as a great and powerful Pacific state, the US should rationally manage this region’s potential conflicts, especially those with China – another powerful Pacific country – and cooperate with all other concerned countries.

Whether Washington’s return-to-Asia strategy will make the US a troublemaker or a responsible actor in Asia is to a great extent dependent on its approach to China – to respect China’s achievement or see it with jealousy.

Dr Jian Junbo is an assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai.


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Filed under Imperialism/World Order, Law/Geopolitics/ Politics

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