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Beijing will continue asserting itself in disputed territories. Its neighbors will continue to do little to challenge it.
Compared to the chaos in Iraq and Ukraine, East Asia looks relatively peaceful. Yet lurking under Asia’s apparent stability is a worrisome trend of power politics that eventually will reshape the face of the region. Events over the past week showed that China will continue pushing its claims in disputed territory in ways that are increasingly difficult to oppose. At the same time, America’s influence in the region may be growing weaker.
Stoking the fires of a long-running dispute, Beijing announced last week that it will build lighthouses on five disputed islands in the South China Sea. The islets lie in both the Spratly and Paracel Islands groups, meaning that this escalation is meant to undercut rival claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan to the territories.
Despite increasing unease on the part of Southeast Asian nations, Chinese influence is growing. Last week at the Asean Regional Forum, China and other member nations generally dismissed a U.S.-backed proposal that no nation take provocative actions in the sea. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry found little support, other than from Manila, for his proposal. Instead, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, argued that only the ineffective Asean “declaration of conduct” should guide maritime disputes.
At nearly the same time, China sent coast guard ships back into waters off the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by both nations. This happened just days after Tokyo released its latest defense white paper, which specifically criticized China for “dangerous acts” near the islands. If Japan hoped its strong words would deter further Chinese intimidation, it was mistaken. Beijing instead appears committed to testing Japanese resolve.
Gone are the days when Japan hesitated to publicly name China as a disruptive actor. Instead, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered Japan as a security partner to Asian nations worried about China’s military buildup. This month, Tokyo announced plans to sell Vietnam six used maritime patrol vessels to help Hanoi better monitor its waters. Japan also sold 10 new patrol boats to the Philippines in a deal underwritten by an official loan from Tokyo. In July, Japan and Australia announced plans to jointly develop advanced submarine technology. Increased cooperation between Tokyo and New Delhi is also a priority for the leaders of both countries.
Yet these new strategic relationships have not caused Beijing to rethink its attitude on contested territory or its unsettling military buildup. In fact, it is likely that the reaction from its neighbors is causing Beijing to justify the military modernization plan that caused such concern in the first place.
East Asia is thus in a very unstable period marked by all sides’ hardening their positions. China’s size and strength make it the dominant actor against any one nation. The new political alignments are far from becoming any type of mutual security organization that could respond to Chinese provocations. Nor, it seems clear, do even China’s antagonists want to take such adversarial roles.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Asian nations are simply reacting to Beijing’s initiatives. More troubling, China is seeking to diplomatically isolate the United States. Mr. Wang sought to portray America as an outlier, urging “Asian nations” to come together to solve the problem without any outside interference.
Such tactics will not work as long as Washington is seen as a credible actor in Asia. Yet the less Washington is able to influence the course of events in disputed waters, the more likely it is that Asia’s capitals will decide they must deal with Beijing directly. Even Japan’s newfound activism does not translate into a direct challenge to Beijing’s claims throughout the region.
Instead, both Washington and Tokyo are hoping for a slow reordering of Asia’s political balance. The U.S. and Japan appear to be betting that Beijing will moderate its behavior if it feels increasingly isolated. Their first attempts to isolate Beijing have not yielded the hoped-for outcome. It is questionable if further pressure will do so. Instead, China may feel pushed into a corner, thus making its position that much more intractable.
It is likely that this represents the future power politics in Asia. A small group of countries will increase their cooperation, yet do little to directly challenge China’s steady gains. As long as Beijing continues to push the initiative, the Asian security balance will slowly be reshaped in its favor.
Only a risky and concerted push by the region’s militarily capable powers, such as by forcibly preventing Beijing from building the announced lighthouses, could send a signal that its behavior must change. Given that the odds of that happening are infinitesimally small, the new normal in Asia will see China’s presence increase in once-disputed waters.
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