The ferocity and scale of this week’s demonstrations in China, instigated by the activities of Chinese and Japanese activists on disputed territories within the South China Sea, are strong a reminder of the importance of the region for International Relations.

This week’s skirmishes are the latest in a series of power plays being played out in the region as regional and global powers attempt to assert dominance.  These ongoing disputes threaten to destabilise the region and risk an escalation in aggressive behaviour and conflict.   Recent behavior from Beijing seems to indicate a moderated approach – the signing of a Declaration on Conduct between China and the ten ASEAN countries; the agreement to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” in the region; and China’s discussions with Indonesian naval counterparts to enter into defence co-operation in the region.

However, China’s peace-building rhetoric does not follow China’s more aggressive actions of late, including deliberate incursions into territories disputed by the Philippines and other neighbours and the announcement that China intends to establish a military post to oversea the disputed Paracel Islands.  These actions indicate a more adversarial attitude than China wishes to promote, and one which China’s neighbours, if they continue to acquiesce to or rely merely on ASEAN and diplomatic channels for security, will surely give Beijing the ability and audacity to continue its pursuit of regional dominance.  There is no doubt that China will aggressively pursue its claim to the region;  described as “the new Persian Gulf”, undisputed control of the region would ensure access to trade routes and oil and mineral resources worth trillions of dollars.  Already the world’s largest consumer of oil, China’s ability to establish sovereignty over the region would be a determining factor in its future economic and military growth and position of regional hegemony.

This conflict is set to escalate in the coming decade as China and the US focus their military and diplomatic resources on the region.  Obama has announced an increased US military presence in the region and plans for half of the US fleet to be stationed in the Pacific by 2020.  Combined with a major expansion of US missile defenses in Asia, this strategy is intended to curtail China’s “string of pearls” and diminish its strategic expansion into the region.  China’s behavior is in direct response to this US military focus on the region.  What will be outcome?  At best, a new cold war; at worst, global conflict.  The US cannot risk open warfare with such a powerful adversary, but this may be the inevitable result of Obama’s current actions.  China’s President Hu Jintao has (supposedly) claimed that “war is imminent with the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines”, which is far from idle rhetoric – a war against the US would overshadow China’s economic and political problems and refocus domestic discontent on an external enemy.  The resulting wave of Chinese territorial nationalism, economic boom (as a result of the military industrial complex) and the legitimization of the Communist Party’s stance against foreign opposition to Chinese power and sovereignty are surely justification enough for China to pursue a confrontation over the South China Sea rather than acquiesce to calls for resource sharing within the region.

The US is preparing itself to face this confrontation, and consequently the world is progressing inexorably towards a conflict of which will determine global power structures and will be the defining feature of the 21st century.  A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies assessment on the situation declares that “the underlying US geostrategic objective in the Asia-Pacific region has been to prevent ‘the rise of any hegemonic state from within the region that could threaten US interests by seeking to obstruct American access or dominate the maritime domain. From that perspective, the most significant problem for the United States in Asia today is China’s rising power, influence, and expectations of regional pre-eminence’.” While a conflict between China and the US is “unthinkable” (in both economic and military terms), the “U.S. force posture must demonstrate a readiness and capacity to fight and win, even under more challenging circumstances associated with A2AD [anti-access/area denial] and other threats to U.S. military operations in the Western Pacific”.  So, both sides are preparing for a war that neither can win alone, and both are seeking to strengthen diplomatic and military ties within the region (Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, NZ etc).   These actions risk the heightening of tensions and the creation of a new arms race, with the South China Sea being as likely a flash-point as any for such a conflict to occur.



  1. ryankf says:

    Good post Rich. I’m depressed now though if I believe like you wrote that we live in a world where the relationship between my home country and China is one where the reality is “At best, a new cold war; at worst, global conflict.”
    I don’t know who will be leading my country when i go home in February and either way i need to worry about the Red Menace threatening my American way of life. I’d move to Europe and ride motorcycles with Henning’s dad and visit my new adoptive parents, the Schnelleckes’, were it not for the crumbling Euro-state.
    I know it’s a bit naive to take the rhetoric that comes out of Washington about it’s non-containment intentions for China at face value, but i think what people say has an effect on what they actually do. Rhetoric for war works to beget war, and rhetoric for peaceful engagement at least leaves that possibility open.
    It’s the job of Chinese defence practitioners to expand their capabilities and projection power, and it’s the job of US defence minds to prepare for military conflict in the South China Sea and beyond. A shift of US Navy resources to the region is prudent and impermanent. It’s a prudent measure as a “hedge” as Bruce Vaughn put it in his lecture yesterday downtown. It’s impermanent and can change – it’s not a preparation for war, but a move closer to areas of interest to the US – which as we know, change and are impermanent.
    I’d be worried if we were living 50-years ago, but in a post-realist world where prime ministers text one another and the gulf of the vast Pacific Ocean can be crossed with a phone call, email or video conference the security dilema is less of an issue because it’s not an unknown. If everyone knows in real time the moves on the game board and no one is isolated AND there are assumed to be endless iterations of the game then we’ve eliminated the need for outright conflict.
    The unthinkable happens all the time, so to say that the US and China can’t enter into a major conflict because they are too economically dependent on one another would truly be naive. But if we believe what visiting professor Zhu Feng said in his remarks earlier this week at Rob Ayson’s paper unveiling down at the law school, within the next 20-years China will be a democracy. I know, i nearly fell out of my chair when i heard him say it. Granted, Prof. Zhu went on to say it won’t be a democracy synonymous with the familiar Western style, but a democracy none the less. And as we all know in a post-Cold War world democracies don’t fight each other. And since the history books are gospel and never need to be re-written i can say with 100% certainty that China and the US will not enter into military conflict (…he says with a wink).
    Cheek aside, i think it just comes down to a balancing act for the two major powers based on the path of least resistance, which for the time being leads to engagement, accommodation, and peace.
    Militarily speaking, China is no threat to the US. Great leaps forward for China still place it 30-years behind the US with regard to military technology. Let’s not be under any illusion that if pressed the whole of American sentiment toward fighting multiple battles around the world could be focused on one region at the speed of one ill timed incident and one reactionary speech. Is the US still a “sleeping giant”? Maybe not, or at least no more than China is a “sleeping dragon”. Best not to poke either – but if we’re curious it’ll only cost the price of admission down at the Embassy Theater on Dec. 14 to find out what happens when you disturb the slumber of a dragon resting on its pile of gold.
    If Dr. Zhu is right the US and China need only resist the temptation to wake each other up for the next two decades. If the US can accommodate China for that time it may be the dawning of a brave new world where both a cold or hot war between the two really would be unthinkable.

  2. henning says:

    I agree with Ryan in that “rhetoric for war works to beget war, and rhetoric for peaceful engagement at least leaves that possibility open”. While China takes “an active part in UN peacekeeping missions and contribute[s] to world peace and security”,1 at least in the SCS dispute there is little peace-building rhetoric on part of China at the moment. The ‘Declaration of Conduct’ was already signed on 4 November 2002. What’s currently up for discussion is the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, on which ASEAN first has to come to a unified position, thus far hampered by conflicting positions between Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of whom have territorial disputes with China in the SCS and current ASEAN chair Cambodia, China’s “de-facto proxy within ASEAN”.2 Also Laos and Burma are cosy with Beijing. There have also been earlier stand-offs in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, off the Natuna Islands, well beyond the line that demarcates China’s claim to the South China Sea.3 But Indonesia’s defence agreement with China could actually add to the complexity of the dispute rather than its mitigation. Indonesia and China envisage the production of anti-ship missiles on Java – paradoxically it would seem considering their maritime stand-off two years ago – as Indonesia wants to become more independent in weapons manufacturing. But other ASEAN members might be little pleased by this development. Also China’s efforts at building bilateral ties with other ASEAN member states in several areas has elicited critique from the U.S. as China is accused of dividing the region to exercise stronger influence on ASEAN through its deepening bilateral ties.4

    But despite these impulses and select media’s war mongering I doubt China’s intention and ability to establish sovereignty over the region. Like Ryan pointed out, China is a long way from posing a military threat. Also, power projection in the region might well be led by efforts to distract from domestic woes rather than hegemonic aspirations, though from an energy security perspective the region surely is of interest to all those that lay claim on the territory. Lastly, China has made the point numerous times that it wants to play by international laws and rules; the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea would clarify areas of overlapping maritime claims and outline the framework for negotiations on joint development.5 China does not seem willing to accept the UNCLOS for mitigating this conflict as it conflicts with historical claims, but Beijing would be well-advised to consider the options. Sreeraman recently argued in Foreign Policy Journal that “[a] slovenly attitude bordering on belligerence at this critical juncture would severely undermine credibility, not only among regional peers but also global geopolitical rivals. In order to emerge as a responsible participant in the global sphere, it is imperative for China to choose dialogue over arsenal.”6

    Indeed, a war against the US would be in neither party’s interest, moreover as this would likely exacerbate China’s domestic concerns – I don’t see a war-economy alleviate domestic economic conditions over the long term, and the Party surely acknowledges that there is little sustainable growth in a conflict that would inadvertently also trigger massive repercussions for China’s population. Also, from the U.S. point of view, the CSIS report emphasises that “the top priority of U.S. strategy in Asia is not to prepare for a conflict with China; rather, it is to shape the environment so that such a conflict is never necessary and perhaps someday inconceivable”.7 Maybe Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, Dr. Esther Brimmer can provide us with some insight tonight as to the possibilities and challenges this might entail?!

    1) Chinese Government’s Official Web Portal, Chinese UN military observers return from Syria, 25 August 2012 (
    2) The Economist, Cambodia’s foreign relations: Losing the limelight, 17 July 2012.
    3) The Weekly Standard, Why is China Picking Fights with Indonesia?, 6 August 2010. (
    4)VOA, Indonesia, China to Sign Missile Production Agreement, 16 August 2012.
    5) RSIS, The South China Sea Disputes: How Countries Can Clarify Their Maritime Claims – Analysis. 8 August 2012, (
    6) Hemant Sreeraman, (South China) Sea of Problems: A Question of Energy Security. Foreign Policy Journal, 22 August 2012.
    7) CSIS, U.S. Force Posture Strategy in the Asia Pacific Region: An Independent Assessment (2012), p.5.

  3. I think China’s apparent belligerence in the South China Sea has to be seen in a broader context whereby China has largely embraced the international system and is cooperating with other states. Here are some examples:

    1. China has joined the Japanese-initiated “Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia” to which all ASEAN nations, Korea, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka as well as Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway are Contracting Parties.
    2. Last year, Premier Wen Jiabao called for China and Malaysia to carry out joint development in the South China Sea.1
    3. In 2008, the United States and China signed a ten-year framework for energy and environment cooperation.2
    4. In February 2006, India and China agreed to cooperate rather than compete for global energy resources.
    5. Chinese energy companies are now increasingly partnering with the big boys of the international oil world such as BP, Total, Arrows Energy, Chevron and Unocal.3

    Assuming China is a rational actor, what would be the incentive for China to go to war with the US? No doubt the Chinese nationalists would revel looking on at the Chinese navy taking on the military might of the US, but it wouldn’t last. The military imbalance is just too wide. The US would likely respond by cutting off seaborne energy supplies to China and would probably slap on all sorts of trade sanctions. The US economy would enter free fall, but the Chinese economy would be even worse off since, put crudely, it’s dependent on exports. In all likelihood the regime would be toppled. Chinese leaders know this, and that’s why they have been treading carefully.

    Maybe China is biding time, as I suggested in an earlier blog. But for now, I don’t see big trouble. We need to remember also that skirmishes between China and SE Asian states aren’t new. They go right back to the 1970s. Let’s not forget also that China’s defence spending to GDP ratio is not climbing.4 It’s just that China’s economy is growing very fast. But China isn’t becoming more of a militarised state.

    Unlike the US, China is quite lonely. It is close to Burma, Venezuela, a host of African states and let’s not forget the SCO. But the SCO is Russia and the landlocked Central Asian republics. China’s relationship with Russia has been patchy and fraught with distrust. A conflict would see the US round up its allies, who are basically everybody in the Western Pacific. Vietnam claims to be neutral, but having experienced Chinese intrusions over several millennia, it’s not hard to figure out who they’d side with…

    All in all, my reckoning is that conflict is extremely unlikely. Instead of picking up on alarmist literature, we should see the big picture of Chinese integration into world institutions and understand the reality of their containment/encirclement by the US. To put it into perspective, were we alarmed when the US claimed the sea around the Aleutian Islands? Ok, that’s a bad example since the US bought Alaska from Russia, but it serves to illustrate that the South China Sea is not that far from the mainland and is nothing like European extraterritoriality and colonial outposts. Are we not alarmed that the Kermadecs and Auckland Islands are territories of NZ?

    3. Yergin (2011) The Quest: Energy, security and the remaking of the modern world; Amineh & Guang (eds.) (2012) Secure Oil and Alternative Energy: The geopolitics of energy paths of China and the European Union.

  4. […] you’ve probably heard or read in Rich’s post, the heat is building up between China, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan. The centre of […]

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