US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to China appears to have been quite uneventful, apart from the fight between a visiting US college basketball team (unrelated to Biden’s visit) and their Chinese counterparts. Is this a portent of things to come?
Considering China’s nervousness over its investments in US Treasuries, Biden must have assured his hosts that the US remained a secure economic destination. However, according to media reports, Chinese leaders didn’t need any assurances because they already had confidence in the US financial system.
The US’ weakened economic position, with China as its biggest creditor, gives Beijing important political and economic leverage in the Sino-US bilateral relationship. Indeed, according to a report in the Times of London, Pentagon officials are already practicing economic war games because of a threat “that makes America vulnerable to a new kind of bloodless, but ruthless war.”
Times’ correspondent Helen Rumbelow wrote: “At the end of that Pentagon session, [in 2009] the 80-odd players returned from their bunkers and assessed the damage.”
The result: “China won, without so much as reaching for a gun.”
China increasingly fancies itself as a new superpower, with fewer constraints on its power. This is reflected in Beijing’s refusal to become part of a regional architecture conducive to stability and cooperation.
Beijing is reportedly rebuffing efforts to set up protocols and institutions for regional crisis prevention.
“We continue to underscore how important that is,” US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said.
“More and more, Chinese and the United States operate side by side [in the region]. There is a need to have predictability on the high seas and above the high seas,” Campbell told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Hence the need “to put in place the institutions and policies to manage any incidents” — of which there have been quite a few recently — on the high seas between the US and China and between China and its regional neighbors.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard reportedly made the same point when recently addressing the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Perth.
“This is about shaping a future ... by developing institutions, norms, rules and habits of consultations and cooperation that minimize the risk of conflict or miscalculation, manage the frictions of a growing and changing Asia-Pacific,” Gillard said.
However, China doesn’t seem interested. With its blanket sovereignty claims to regional seas and islands, it is not interested in a regional architecture that might constrain its freedom of action.
Take the case of the South China Sea and Pacific island chains that Beijing claims. Some of China’s neighbors contest its claims of sovereignty — there have been naval incidents with Vietnam and the Philippines over these ownership issues. The Chinese navy, for instance, reportedly cut the cables of a Vietnamese survey ship in waters claimed by that country.
The Philippines, too, has claimed a number of Chinese naval incursions. Manila felt so threatened that it invoked its security treaty with the US.
China’s attempts to turn the whole of Southeast Asia into its regional enclave are also acting as a catalyst for closer strategic ties between the US and Vietnam, former enemies.
The spectacle of Chinese heavy-handedness is reminiscent of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere around the time of the World War II, which it sought to carve out by attacking and occupying its Asian neighbors.