Straits Times on the Sino-US strategic mind games at risk of becoming friction points ripe for miscalculation.
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Securing allies amid China’s rise
By Michael Richardson
Source – Straits Times, published February 4, 2013
WILL 2013 be the year when one or more of the intractable disputes in the seas off China explode into armed conflict, involving the United States in a wider war to protect its Asian allies?
The disputes are about ownership of islands, and jurisdiction over strategic maritime zones and valuable resources.
The answer should be a resounding “no”. Such a war, with no guarantees that it can be contained, would have unpredictable but potentially catastrophic consequences.
The major protagonists in these disputes – the US, China and Japan – are respectively the world’s three largest economies, with a strong mutual interest in maintaining peace to boost their trade, growth, investment and jobs.
The other economies in North-east and South-east Asia are closely tied to those of the major players. They would also suffer badly from military conflict, even if it was confined to the region.
The shock to business confidence in Asia, a driver of recovery in the still-fragile global economy, would be shattering.
In the South China Sea, where Beijing’s territorial claims are most extensive, an increasingly assertive and militarily powerful China is challenging the right of other nations to occupy atolls and reefs that it claims.
The rival claimants include US ally the Philippines, as well as Vietnam and Malaysia.
Beijing is also seeking to enforce controls on fishing in the South China Sea, and bans on developing energy and mineral resources in the waters, sea bed and subsoil it claims, unless they are done with Chinese approval.
But it is in the East China Sea that maritime tensions are currently most acute. Japan is trying to fend off a Chinese challenge to its administrative control of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu to the Chinese), which lie about midway between Taiwan and Okinawa in southern Japan, where the US has important military bases.
Both sides have recently scrambled jet fighters and confronted each other’s patrol boats in waters surrounding the islands.
The commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Cecil Haney, warned last week that conflicting sovereignty claims in the East and South China seas are especially troublesome “friction points” and can be “ripe for miscalculation”.
With the Asia-Pacific area anxious about a clash – either accidental or intentional – Japan, encouraged by the US, has made some diplomatic efforts to ease tensions with China.
It sent an envoy to Beijing and proposed a summit, or high-level talks. However, in calling for calm, Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that there was “no room for negotiations” over the sovereignty of the Senkakus, something Beijing insists must take place with Tokyo.
Both sides appear to be staking out their vital, or “core”, national interests, while building their military strength.
China will “never give up” its core territorial and security interests, said its leader Xi Jinping last week, in his first presentation on foreign policy since taking over as leader of both the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the armed forces last November.
A summary of his speech was published in the state media. He seemed to take a noticeably tougher approach than his predecessor Hu Jintao.
In an evident reference to rival claimants in the East and South China seas, Mr Xi said that “no country should presume that we will engage in trade involving our core interests or that we will swallow the bitter fruit of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests”.
China would “stick to the road of peaceful development but never give up our legitimate rights and never sacrifice our national core interests”.
How will China’s new military and political leadership reconcile these two seemingly contradictory positions: advancing peaceful development, while maintaining rigid adherence to sweeping maritime claims that are either opposed or not recognised by virtually all of its Asian neighbours?
It depends on how China defines national core interests that must be defended at all costs, even by the threat or use of force.
So far, these interests have been linked to quelling independence movements in Tibet and the far western region of Xinjiang, and eventually bringing Taiwan under China’s rule.
But China regards the Diaoyu Islands as part of Taiwan, and is increasingly acting as though its claimed sovereignty over the islands is a core interest.
Asean member states wary of China’s push into the maritime heart of South-east Asia fear that Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea will have a similar status.
In such a fraught atmosphere, the US must strike the right balance between deterring and engaging China. As Beijing’s policy hardens, this is an increasingly difficult balance to maintain.
The US has an impressive array of naval, air and marine forces ready to defend Japan should Tokyo request assistance in the event of an armed conflict with China over the disputed islands.
Whether, where, and under what circumstances the US would actually use them against China is still shrouded in strategic ambiguity.
However, in one of her last major official meetings on Jan 18 before stepping down as US secretary of state, Mrs Hillary Clinton assured Japan’s visiting Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida that “although the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the (Senkaku) islands, we acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration”.
She added the US urged “all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means”.
The leaders of Japan and the US are to hold a summit meeting in Washington later this month. Preventing a military conflict with China will be high on the agenda.
Should the unthinkable occur as the US and Japan struggle with weak economies and uncertain domestic politics, the two allies will need a plan for effective response.
Without it, the US alliance system in Asia and the Pacific will be shown to be nothing more than a “paper tiger”, and hopes of finding ways to counterbalance China’s assertive rise and preserve peace will be illusory.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.