One might think that with everything on the Obama administration’s plate these days, realigning US – China relationships would have moved lower on the agenda. But the truth is that for solutions to so many of other priorities, the road increasingly leads through Beijing.
Of late, the US is now adopting a tougher tone with China on what might be called minor issues. “Major” issues include Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korean and Iranian and nuclear proliferation, BP’s massive oil spill, climate change, international financial regulation, unemployment, a flat-lining economic recovery and, of course, the mid-term election. But on Sino-American relations the goal is to achieve a calibrated approach in working with China on many things, rather than confronting the country just as a new more assertive China rubs up against long-time US interests in East Asia. This approach is now taking the form of a broader strategic response to the seemingly unstoppable rise of the new China, the close economic ties between the two nations and China’s increasing military reach in the region.
It may be instructive to look at this from the Chinese perspective as well. For millennia, a central feature of China’s relationship with its neighbours was predicated on China’s central importance as the “Middle Kingdom” around which all else was arrayed. The result was a series of unequal, unbalanced relationships between China and its neighbours.
As late as the end of the 18th century, Vietnam, Burma, Korea, the Ryukyu Islands kingdom, Mongolia and a serious chunk of southern Siberia were all tributary states or territories. A 100 years later, the situation was very different. The country had been forced to sign a slew of unequal treaties, its territory was being nibbled away by territorial concessions and protectorates, dozens of treaty ports provided extraterritorial legal circumstances for foreign businessmen, and foreign troops were being stationed in its major cities.
Even worse followed. China entered decades of warlordism, a Japanese invasion, and civil war between the Nationalists and Communist guerrillas that culminated in Communist victory. That victory then led to the Cultural Revolution and a prolonged period of economic autarky. These humiliations help explain the desire of every Chinese ruler to readjust the balance between China and the rest of the world to its proper level.
And so China is now reasserting sovereignty over an area it last claimed some 200 years ago – the entire South China Sea and the island groups of the Spratleys and the Paracels inside it – and the oil, natural gas under the seabed, as well as the major fishing stocks in the water.
But China’s resurgent claim to this space bumps into competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia, as well as decades of American naval military exercises in that region. At the same time as it’s trying to limit Chinese ambitions there, the US is hoping it can get China to cooperate on reining in Iran and North Korea, among other areas of possible cooperation.
This background should help explain secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s surprising comments at last week’s ASEAN summit in Vietnam, when she publicly entered the South China Sea dispute, taking sides with China’s East Asian opponents. At the meeting, Clinton said freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a key US national interest, adding that, “Legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features”. (In non-diplomat speak that means: China, your claims don’t mean very much because no Chinese live on those rocks – just pelicans and sea gulls.)
Well, the Chinese apparently weren’t going to take that lying down. Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi then said the US was ganging up on China with all those other nations and Shen Dingli, a leading Chinese international relations scholar, said US naval exercises along the East Asian littoral like the ones near Korea were comparable to Russia’s stationing nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962.
American officials say this new American assertiveness in these parts is just one part of a bigger strategic shift that acknowledges China’s coming of age as a world power, but also lays down markers whenever and wherever Chinese actions impinge on what the US sees as its own long-time interests. Naturally, the Chinese don’t quite see it the same way.
Photo: A U.S. Marine Corps C-130 Hercules aircraft leads a formation of F/A-18C Hornet strike fighters and A/V-8B Harrier jets over the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) in the East Sea of Korea, July 27, 2010. The Republic of Korea and the United States conducted the combined alliance maritime and air readiness exercise “Invincible Spirit” in the seas east of the Korean peninsula from July 25 – 28, 2010. This was the first in a series of joint military exercises that will occur over the coming months in the East and West Seas. REUTERS/Charles Oki/U.S. Navy photo/Handout
Xu Liping, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says America is seeking to revive its influence in the region after a decade of distractions in South Asia and the Middle East. Xu said, “The US feels like this is the time to play the political and military card since it’s very difficult for them to compete with China in the economic sphere.” Drawing some lines in the sand along the South China Sea “will help to continue its influence among South Asian countries”.
As a result, on the one hand there is America’s embrace of China as a member of the G-20 grouping and a backing for a bigger Chinese role in the IMF and World Bank. But on the other hand, America is countering China in the region through such decisions as an end to a long-time ban on military ties with Indonesia’s special forces troops (the same guys who made such a splash in East Timor and other miscellaneous repressive activities), as well as the big, joint military exercise with South Korea that included a carrier battle group and about 8,000 military personnel. You get the idea, right?
Taken together, these moves are getting some applause from China watchers in America – especially those with ties to the defence community. For example, James Mulvenon at Defense Group Inc.’s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis says these strategic moves are “a masterful piece of diplomacy” in Chinese relations.
About a year ago, the China-watching community was more divided about how to deal with China. While the RAND Corporation’s Roger Cliff said, “US surface ships, including US aircraft carrier strike groups that are within about 1,000 miles of China’s coast, are going to be vulnerable to attack by aircraft, surface ships and submarines”, the Pentagon’s 2009 report on China’s military power ranked the country’s defence technology below that of the US.
And retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, director of Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, argued: “It is a very difficult thing to imagine a two-pronged campaign – one against Taiwan and one against an intervening American force…. So China does not have the experience and the forces and so forth to expect to be able to do that very effectively. That would be a truly daunting challenge.” McVadon added, “For the moment, we have to hedge. Both sides have to hedge because we are fearful that a conflict could arise. But the more that we cooperate and engage, maybe the less important it becomes to hedge.”
That was 2009; this is now. Administration sources are now saying this change in American emphases, to be more in-your-face to China about the South China Sea, goes back a few months. America’s China watchers noted that the Chinese had begun to describe the South China Sea as one of its “core interests”. For example, assistant minister of foreign affairs Cui Tiankai told American officials that China saw its claims to that sea as the same as its claims to Tibet and Taiwan. And the South China Sea is important with about 50% of the world’s merchant tonnage transiting it annually. This makes it important in the same way the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez and Panama Canals are important. And then, of course, there is oil, natural gas and fishing stocks.
Other nations facing the South China Sea have also said they are increasingly unhappy about China’s pressure on them in this area. China has also been warning Exxon Mobil and BP to stop exploration in offshore areas near Vietnam and has been arresting crews of fishing vessels in the area as well. Readers with long memories may remember the Chinese and Vietnamese had a confrontation that featured competing patrols and temporary bamboo hut outposts on islands in the South China Sea back in the 1980s to stake out claims to the region, on the assumption there might be some value from the islands. Now the stakes matter more because there is value in those islands and the sea.
At the recent ASEAN summit, foreign minister Yang responded to Hillary Clinton by saying that the US was plotting against China, he poked some fun at Vietnam’s fellow socialist street cred (those are fighting words between these two capitalist communist nations) and then he aimed some words Singapore’s way as well. Summing it up, Yang said, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” That sounds friendly and fraternal, but their neighbours may not be seeing things quite the same way. Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia have now purchased new submarines and the Japanese have announced plans to increase their own sub fleet for the first time since the 1970s, when the world was a very different place.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have made their own diplomatic sortie over US-Korean military exercises that involved some 200 aircraft, 20 ships and an aircraft carrier. Although the exercises were ostensibly a message to North Korea over the March sinking of the South Korean patrol vessel that killed 46 sailors, the Chinese have responded by implying somebody besides Pyongyang was the real target of the exercises. Chinese general, Ma Xiaotian, went on television to say, “As far as these exercises are conducted … in the close proximity to our territorial waters, we strongly protest”. To try to calm things down a bit, the US held the early part of the exercise on the east side of the Korean peninsula, in the Sea of Japan. But, according to sources, precisely because the Chinese made such a public fuss about the exercise, the US will conduct future exercises in the Yellow Sea.
This isn’t just an East Asian regional thing, in part because the US and China have an increasing number of points of contact on security questions around the world – not to mention economic disagreements or competition over access to resources. Just to take one issue, the Americans and Chinese continue to have differences over how to deal with Iran. The Chinese signed on to enhanced UN sanctions, but they were weaker than what the US and the EU nations had hoped for because of Chinese interests in accessing Iranian oil. The worry now is that while the US, Canada and the EU have added further restrictions, Chinese state-owned energy firms will rush to fill the gap. One senior American official warned, “We’re not done on Iran. We are looking for maximum Chinese restraint.” The effort to find that new equilibrium between the US and China is just beginning and it is likely to be the defining strategic issue for the 21st century.
By J Brooks Spector
For more, read The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, the Chinese Ministry of Defence, the Voice of America, Marport, The China Daily, The Washington Post and the US Defense Department’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.
Main photo: President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao participate in an official arrival ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Nov. 17, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
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