THE stage is set for confrontation between the countries of East Asia and China. By what we have observed over the last year, China is in no mood to back down from claiming what it sees as territorial waters. Beyond the usual rhetoric, the United States has not been able to do much. Japan remains handicapped by its post-war constitution and China has had been picking up morsels here and there from neighbours who are ill-equipped to do anything about it.
It is now inevitable that, should China decide to stay its course, conflict is unavoidable. What China claims, are by all standards, international waters and at least five countries in the neighbourhood claim as their own. These nations are Brunei, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia. And one cannot forget that China has laid claim over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that are controlled by Japan. With the exception of Japan, and perhaps Republic of Korea, none of the other countries are in any position to do much about Beijing's belligerence.
Beyond the usual diplomatic protestations, the US has not been able to offer much. So where does that leave US's credibility in Asia? Looking at current US foreign policy, we see a general withdrawal from foreign engagements. Withdrawing, as in physical removal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, not committing to air strikes over Syria, are all signs of a realisation that the US is not particularly inclined to get entangled in conflicts from which it becomes very difficult to disengage. Needless to say, such action or inaction thereof is putting to test US commitment to its allies in Asia.
One can understand why the US is in no mood to get into a potential standoff with China. As explained by Jennifer Linst in a recent article published in the Foreign Affairs: “Today, however, it's the Americans who fear entanglement, in an unwanted and potentially devastating war with China. Given this profound change, it is unsurprising that US allies question Washington's commitment to their security. In March, for example, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun discussed how increasing tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu were leading many Japanese observers to cite 'the unreliability of Japan's main ally'.”
Responding to such doubts, Washington has reiterated its commitment to Japan's security in broad terms. US President Barack Obama and other US officials have announced that although Washington does not take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands, its security guarantee for Japan would apply to attacks against the islands because they are “administered” by Japan.
While that addresses Japanese concerns, what about other countries in East Asia? The Philippines has long been an ally of the US. Again, going by what has been made public by US policymakers, there is serious doubt as to whether the US would extend the same assistance to backing up that country's claims in the South China Sea. We have not actually come to a situation where Beijing has wrested control over disputed territory from Japan or other countries in this evolving “situation.” Despite all the sabre rattling, it is still not clear whether Beijing is going to take steps that will bring to the fore a real possibility of armed conflict with the US.
China wishes to be treated with respect in the neighbourhood and has uttered statements in the recent past that constitute that it is the biggest player in the region (both economically and militarily) and other nations would be wise to follow its lead, rather than that of the US. This pattern brings it into direct confrontation with the US, which has remained dominant and unchallenged since the demise of the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1991. And while the US has been busy resolving or containing conflicts in other parts of the world, China has spent the last two decades revamping its military-industrial complex, riding on the economic success of the Deng-inspired “socialist market economy.”
There could be other probable reasons behind China's aggressiveness. Could it be that its present stance is a way to draw attention away from its domestic problems (inter-regional inequality, poverty, environmental issues, etc.)? Surely, it also does not want to have an all-out conflict. Is China looking at Russian strongman Putin and sensing US weakness, and is intent on exposing and intensifying the weakness?
For the US, losing out on Asia is not really an option. Inaction and dithering on its part has caused it to lose “face” (in the Asian perspective).If it wishes to regain some of its former prestige, the US will have to step up and show it means business. And that means visible presence on the high seas and the air. That policy needs to be backed up by public statements to its allies in the region that the US will respond, in kind, if its allies are attacked. Feathers have been ruffled on all sides and these need to be smoothened. Diplomatic efforts need to run in parallel to security measures. Behind-the-scenes negotiations will help bring down the mercury a few notches and help contain the situation. In the final analysis of things, no one really wants a conflict, for no country can afford another global economic meltdown -- the last one hasn't finished melting yet.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.