Wed, Dec 14, 2005 - Page 8 News List

China will choose its own time

By Sushil Seth

US Senator Joseph Lieberman, a US vice-presidential candidate in 2000, has raised the alarmist scenario of a possible future military conflict between China and the US, arising out of their competitive quest for the world's dwindling oil resources. He believes that the race for oil, unless cooled down through urgent talks between the two countries, could become "as hot and dangerous as the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union" during the Cold War period. And "this could end up in real military conflict, not just economic conflict," he recently told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Looking at it, the conflict could arise in two ways. First, as both countries scour the globe for new oil sources, this will create new areas of political and economic tension. The political fragility of potentially oil-rich countries in Africa and Central Asia will make the race even more combustible. Some of the countries being wooed by China, like Sudan, for instance, are hostile to the US. In Central Asia -- another oil-rich region -- the US and China (and Russia) are engaged in a repeat of the colonial era `Great Game' of edging each other out. All this is pretty dangerous stuff.

The second source of conflict could be the oil-related politics of China and US allies. Japan is a case in point. Japan and China are disputing their maritime boundary in the East China Sea, both eyeing its rich natural-gas deposits. China reportedly has already extracted gas from one field while Japan is heading in the same direction, though it hasn't yet started drilling operations.

Tokyo is also planning new legislation to empower its coast guard to protect Japanese rights. The talks between the two countries to resolve the issue are stalled, and their leaders are hardly on speaking terms. There are also deep political problems between the two countries from the last war, with China angry that Japan is trying to whitewash its historical sins.

Japan is the US' security ally. The US line is that it is not buying into the bilateral problems between China and Japan. Washington seems to believe that if the US managed to overcome its wartime antipathy toward Japan, despite Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war between the two countries, China might as well get over it and forge a new relationship with Japan.

But doing this would mean accommodating Japan as a regional heavyweight, which China is loath to do. China wants to turn the tables on Japan by creating its own version of an East Asian co-prosperity sphere by politically marginalizing Japan. In other words, the China-Japan relationship is quite complex, with their maritime dispute only compounding an already difficult situation. And if things were to get too hot between them, the US might not be able to stay out, being as it is Japan's military ally.

The same goes for Taiwan, where the US has obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.

It is not suggested that there is a war just around the corner between China and the US. Indeed, it is not imminent despite the dramatic scenario painted by Lieberman. But it is a fluid situation and things can be unpredictable. The point to make is that it is not just the quest for oil which might put the US and China on a collision course at some time in the future. The overriding factor is that China is seeking to emerge as an alternative superpower.

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