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.