Are we on the brink of a regional conflict?

As 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 attention is the Senkaku (or Diaoyu in Chinese) islands in the East China Sea. Currently under Japanese control, the islands are claimed by both China and Taiwan and have given rise to tensions in the past, notably in 2010.

The Bone of Contention

On 18 September, the People’s Daily published a rather virulent article threatening Tokyo with harsh commercial sanctions if the Japanese government did not decide against ‘nationalising’ three of these islands, which had been up until now the property of a Japanese family. The nationalisation of the islands was in fact an attempt to prevent the current sinophobic and nationalist governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara from buying them for the town. Paradoxically, the nationalisation, which aimed at calming down things, did exactly the opposite. China is now outraged that its warnings have remained ineffective and forcefully claims that the group of islands is part of its ‘inherent’ territory. A few patrollers of the Chinese Sea Surveillance Agency have been sent to the area. Taiwan sent a few boats of its own yesterday, too.

So why this diplomatic rant for a group of five, uninhabited islands, whose surface total a mere 7 sqm? As mentioned above, a similar crisis happened in October 2010 following a minor naval incident in the area. Beijing then put pressure on Japan by heavily reducing exports of rare earth, which are vital to the Japanese high-tech sector. These three-dimensional crises point to recurring tensions between the two countries who are both trade partners and strategic rivals.

The economic and strategic importance of the archipelago shouldn’t be underestimated. The islands, which are located 200 km to the North-East of Taiwan, hold a key location in case of a regional conflict and control a crucial supply route to the region – in particular to Japan. Moreover, its Exclusive Economic Zone is greatly coveted by both powers, as it abounds in fish resources and, potentially, in oil and gas reserves.

History provides a second backdrop to the crisis. Chinese activists did not put Chinese flags on the main island on the 15th of August by chance – it happened to be the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in 1945. Also, the massive demonstrations that have taken place in various Chinese cities epitomise the underlying historical acrimony.

Finally, this crisis needs to be understood in the wider context of rivalry between the two main powers in Asia. Facing a weakened Japan, China is gaining more and more grounds in the region, including in terms of military power. Under the claim of national ‘vital interests’ China asserts its maritime ambitions, including in the South around the Spratleys and Paracels islands, leading to rising tensions between China and its neigbour countries.

In its Annual White Paper on Defense published on 31 July, Tokyo worries about its neighbour’s maritime ambitions and doubling of its military budget within the last 5 years. If China’s economy, diplomacy and military keep growing at the same rate, the Middle Kingdom will quickly dominate the continent. A scenario which is unthinkable for Japanese officials: this is why the announcement that China put its first aircraft carrier into operation last Tuesday, was quickly followed by Japan’s annoucement that it will increase its submarine fleet to 22 in the short-term future.

Another contributing factor to the crisis is the unstable domestic situation in both countries. In China, the woes of the Bo Xilai family have highlighted the major malfunctions within the Communist Party and have disrupted the smooth transfer of power to a new governing team in autumn. In Japan, the Noda government is in a tight spot and may face early parliamentary elections by the end of the year. Authorities in both countries want to avoid an escalation of the crisis but given the up-coming political dates, a harder diplomatic stance pleases the public. Indeed, while there is a minor nationalist and sinophobic movement in Japan, patriotism in China feeds not only on national economic successes but also on nippophobia, which is instrumented by the authorities seeking legitimacy.

Some argue that this territorial dispute is very likely to have a similar ending as the one in 2010. In other words, that the problem will remain unsolved and that Beijing may implement some commercial sanctions in the near future. They claim that realpolitik will probably take over, after the key political dates, due to the interdependence of both economies. Economic and financial cooperation is bound to continue, albeit in a highly unstable and often conflictual context.

Others wonder whether a regional conflict isn’t looming and point out that the interdependence of European economies didn’t prevent the escalation of conflict in 1914. While it will probably not be the main factor in preventing an open conflict in East Asia now, a war would hardly be in the interest of China nor Japan. Although China is showing its muscles, its naval fleet is still in its infancy and is no match to Japan’s, which also enjoys the support of the United States. While the current balance of power is still in favour of Tokyo, it remains to be seen for how long . It looks like the arms race that Rich envisaged has already started.


The meaning of Hillary Clinton’s visit to Asia*

Asia-Pacific is big enough to hold only China and the United States

Asia-Pacific is big enough to hold only China and the United States

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on her Asian tour earlier this month. Her discussions touched on many issues, from the South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute to the crisis in Syria.

In Timor Leste, she sought to advance economic development in the region and issued US$6.5 million in scholarship grants.

While in Jakarta, Clinton urged ASEAN countries to unite in solving territorial issues with China.

She also reiterated strong US support for the regional initiative to ease rising tensions over the disputed island in the SCS.

In China, she was assertive in conveying possible resolutions to the SCS territorial dispute. She also spoke about the Syrian situation, with Clinton asking China, which keeps on blocking the UN Security Council’s move to sanction Syria, to stop backing the regime of President Bashar Assad.

It seems that Clinton’s visit has failed to persuade the Chinese as Beijing remains a staunch supporter of the Assad regime. Beijing also reiterated that the SCC territorial dispute is an issue of Chinese sovereignty and integrity, and isonly willing to discuss it through bilateral talks.

Her tour ended in Brunei in a move to buttress escalating SCS conflict and to coax Brunei in preparation for its ASEAN chairmanship in 2013.

But what is the meaning of her visit to Asia?

First, she is reaffirming the US’s “pivotal” role in the Asia Pacific; the US wants to revive its economic weight in the region.

There is no doubt that the center of economic gravity has now shifted to Asia, and Southeast Asia has a strategic role to play concerning this trend.

Second, it is a way for the US to critically evaluate its choices for crafting a strategy for Asia Pacific in the midst of a rising China.

In my view, there are only three courses; whether the US recapitalizes its forces in the region, encourages its allies to take on larger security responsibilities or limits its commitments.

Third, this may have been seen as a “divide-and-rule” strategy used by the US to weaken China’s political, economic and security influences in the region. As for that case, ASEAN countries have the dilemma of presenting themselves equally to the US and China.

Fourth, encircling China in preparation for a US centered hegemonic order. The US envisages itself as a “pivot” to Asia Pacific, where it can use its leadership in the shaping of the region and its future.

In the new US Defense Strategic Review (January 2012), it is mentioned that the challenge posed by a rising China is at the very heart of America’s new defense strategy in the region.

Fifth, to view the importance of Chinese shipping lanes and Sea Lines of Communication from the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait. With the visit to Timor Leste, it also highlights the geostrategic importance of the eastern flank of Indonesia.

Eighty percent of China’s oil imports still pass through the Malacca Strait and this is why it is a vital choke point. However, the US seems to have a contingency plan in the eastern part of Indonesia if the crisis erupts.

Sixth, the US wants its traditional alliances in the region to relax and feel secure with its growing military capabilities in Asia, and to not appear to be at odds with China.

The US does not want any rivalry within the region as the guarantor of peace and stability. The US’ plans to deploy new missile defenses can be seen from this context.

Last but not least, the US wants to reaffirm its presence and influence in the region, or at least to neutralize China in order to sustain the status-quo.

China’s desire to reduce US influence is an uneasy fact for the US. The “battle” of ensuring order in Asia Pacific then rests on how the US continues and consolidates its current pattern of hegemonic order.

ASEAN countries are at risk of division if they cannot, internally, find solutions to break the “battle” of this regional leadership between US and China.

Outside of intra-ASEAN and the EU; China, Japan and the US continue to be ASEAN’s major trade partners. China is the fastest growing partner with its growth tipping more than 10-fold since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

While the US and Japan remained to be the top providers of ASEAN inflows for 2010, outside the EU and intra-ASEAN.

It is likely that the visit of the secretary of state will yield a closer relationship with the Asia Pacific

and greater commitment from the US toward the territorial dispute in the SCS.

This can be seen as an extended deterrence of China for the sake of US interest. The structure of competition and cooperation coexist in Asia.

ASEAN has a strategic balancing role within the region to maintain its independent voice and constructive role in the international community. It employs three general strategies, which are bridge building, engagement and hedging to maintain strategic stability and minimize risk.

Indonesia therefore plays a vital role as it must become the glue for the cohesiveness of ASEAN and because of her free and active foreign policy she can give structure and be the bridge between the US and China.

*A published version of this article has appeared under the same title in the Jakarta Post, Tuesday, September 18, 2012.


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.

Is a declining Hegemon bad?

In the recent article Hegemony and After, Robert O. Keohane offers a scathing rebuke to the recent works of Robert Kagan and Robert Liebers (too many Robert’s I know) which discuss the gradual decline in U.S. hegemony. According to Keohane, both authors claim that U.S. hegemony is desirable (the alternative of no hegemon being a “more disorderly and dangerous world) and has existed for the past 60 years not as a result of multilateralism and the creation of institutions which the U.S. led, but because other states “approve of American values and goals and believe they may need American power down the road”.

To this Keohane claims their arguments do not engage in any serious analysis of what the U.S. would need to do in order to ensure hegemony, and that their critique of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations do not account for the successes of peacekeeping, trade, etc. Keohane argues that their books fail “to distinguish between what is known and what is unknowable” (a claim that would ultimately bring me completely off topic if I broke down) and that there are six things we do know which somewhat discredit Kagan and Lieber.

They are as follows: (1) with absence of leadership world politics suffers, without alliances or other institutions helping provide reassurance, uncertainty generates security dilemmas. (2) Leadership is exercised most effectively by creating multilateral institutions that enable the sharing of responsibilities and burdens. (3) Leadership is costly and other states have incentives to shirk their responsibilities (or cheat as we called it in class). (4) In democracies such as the U.S. people pay little attention to domestic policy and less to foreign. (5) Autocracies are less stable than democracies. (6) Among those democracies in the world today, only the U.S. has the material capacity (here I assume he means military) and political unity to exercise consistent global leadership (which is needed due to (1)).

I feel as if points (1), (2), and (3) are reiterations of those arguments we discussed in class, even if (1) is a put more strongly than we ever discussed, and that the other points are Keohane’s extrapolations of real world consequences.

Overall I found Keohane’s piece an interesting argument, which gives me no desire to read the works of Kagan or Lieber (making this an unbalanced assessment of their work). I did however find there is one argument he left unaddressed (perhaps as it was not the aim of his article) in that he does not mention whether he is a declinist (pessimist) or antideclinist (optimist) of American hegemony. Personally I would assume that a liberal institutionalist could easily fathom a decline in U.S. hegemony despite its apparent need to guide a multilateral world. Surely a state would recognise that creating international institutions centred on spreading equal rights and the rule of law would lead to ceding sovereignty to the institution and empowering others? Thus a decline in U.S. hegemony is more than expected, and perhaps in no way not desirable, as the tools for the World to continue to cooperate have been established, and assuming that states continue to use them (unlike certain neocons within the U.S.) they can continue to develop and be shaped by ideas by their members. Thus a decline in U.S. hegemony does not necessarily mean a rise in Chinese hegemony, rather it could mean that institutions such as the UN now have the chance to be influenced by other cultures and take on a slightly less Western-centric flavour.