Since last year, East Asia has been overshadowed by various mounting geopolitical tensions due to the escalation of territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. As a major disputing claimant in both cases, China’s recent military assertiveness and jingoistic rhetoric have been perceived negatively by neighboring countries and triggered a series of countermeasures taken by other disputing claimants to balance against China’s expansion of military clout in the region.
Lately, news indicating that countries such as Japan, the Philippines and others are bolstering their defense capabilities suggests that the more China attempts to flex its muscles, the more insecure its neighbors feel and attempt containment maneuvers against China’s rise. This offensive-defensive dynamic is a security dilemma and may ultimately lead to a vicious circle, paving the way for a possible outbreak of military conflict.
The root of recent instability in East Asia, from a perspective of power transition theory, stems from the uncertainty over the power struggle between a perceived decline of US hegemony and the rise of Chinese power.
With its outstanding economic success throughout the past two decades, China surpassed Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world in 2010 and has also replaced the role of the US as the primary trading partner with its neighboring countries.
Meanwhile, by undertaking proactive, comprehensive and profound economic engagements with East Asian countries, China has effectively transformed itself into an indispensible “hub” and center of the regional economy, a role that is likely to be further intensified and consolidated with its economic structural transformation from the “world’s factory” to the “world’s market.”
Accompanying China’s economic prosperity is its improved military capabilities. An estimate shows that Chinese defense spending has risen from about US$20 billion in 2002 to at least US$120 billion in 2011, which makes China’s the second-largest total defense budget behind only the US.
With sufficient financial support, China has aggressively worked on its military build-up and has achieved remarkable progress in terms of military technologies and offensive capabilities. Not only has its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, been commissioned last year, but China has also successfully completed the first takeoff and landing of a J-15 fighter jet on the deck of the carrier, signifying China’s status as a new naval superpower.
In addition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has intentionally disclosed its self-made cutting-edge weapons, such as J-20 stealth fighter jets, in order to display its military strengths.
With enhanced military capabilities, Chinese military leaders have not only become more vocal on foreign affairs, but are more inclined to take a belligerent stance on territorial disputes by publicly announcing readiness to wage a war defending the integrity of China’s sovereignty and territory.
The latest deteriorating situation over the Daioyutai Islands (釣魚台), known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, has revealed some critical signs of a growing military influence on Beijing’s policymaking on this a highly sensitive issue.
Deliberately ignoring Japan’s de facto administration of the disputed islands, China has sent small aircraft and dispatched surveillance, patrol and battleships into the contested waters. By doing so, China not only aims to show its indisputable sovereignty claim on the diplomatic front, but also intends to collect data and intelligence about Japan’s military activities in preparation for any future armed conflict.