Mon, Nov 28, 2011 - Page 8 News List

US confronts China in Asia-Pacific

By Sushil Seth

The US and Japan are already close military allies and their alliance has been further beefed up over the past few years.

China and Japan also have competing maritime claims in the East China Sea that have led to naval skirmishes.

At the same time, the Korean Peninsula remains a live-wire, with North Korea unwilling to give up its nuclear capability. Though China is opposed to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, it is not inclined to use its leverage to lean on Pyongyang.

Taiwan is another hot-button issue, with China claiming it as its own territory and asserting its right to take military action in the event of a declaration of independence.

China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea is creating a general sense of unease that Beijing could interfere with open sea lanes.

These competing claims mean that the Asia-Pacific is a potential time bomb.

The South China Sea was discussed at the just-concluded ASEAN summit in Bali against China’s wishes, and is likely to be included on the agenda in future summits.

Beijing prefers to discuss such issues bilaterally with those countries that have competing claims. This approach would allow it to bring its considerable powers of persuasion to bear on each country individually.

Beijing considers the US an external entity that has absolutely no role to play in regional disputes. The US, of course, is determined to raise its Pacific profile and remind China that it has always been a Pacific power.

In other words, the US decision to make Asia-Pacific policy a priority unavoidably complicates US-China relations.

Australia finds itself right in the middle of this evolving situation, as a willing, if not enthusiastic, partner of US policy to contain Beijing.

China’s People’s Daily warned Australia that it cannot play both sides of the coin and hope to maximize economic gains from its booming trade relationship with China while choosing to side strategically with the US.

“Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached, no matter what Australia does to undermine its security,” the paper said.

More importantly, Obama’s attempts to revitalize the US’ Asia policy go beyond Australia. In a way, the gloves are off and the US is telling China that it will make a determined stand in the Asia-Pacific region to stave off Beijing’s push into the region and efforts to push out the US.

In order to achieve this goal, the US will have to foster new and reinforce old military and strategic ties with those countries that have maritime disputes with China or are otherwise keen to use the US as a countervailing force to China.

How the US-China competition for power will unfold is anybody’s guess. One thing is certain — the Pacific Ocean is unlikely to live up to its name as this new power game unfolds.

Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.

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