China’s rise inspires awe, a combination of fear and admiration. The fear is much more pronounced among some of its neighbors, involving claims and counterclaims of sovereignty over a clutch of islands in the South China and East China seas.
In the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam are particularly at odds with China, as it has sought to occupy and encircle disputed islands. China is creating new islands out of submerged coral reefs, turning them into military facilities to project power and threaten its neighbors.
Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, sounded the alarm recently about a string of islands China has dug out and leveled, posing a threat to stability in the South China Sea, which has some of the busiest sea lanes carrying global trade.
“China is creating a Great Wall of Sand with dredgers and bulldozers over the course of months,” Harris said in a speech delivered in Canberra, Australia, on March 31.
“When one looks at China’s pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states — the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law — and the deep asymmetry between China’s capabilities and those of its smaller neighbors — well, it’s no surprise that the scope and pace of building manmade islands [by China] raises serious questions about China’s intentions,” he said.
In other words, China is posing a threat to regional stability.
According to Michael Wesley, director of the Asia Pacific School at the Australian National University: “This marks a real ramping up of US determination and resolve in the region, reflecting a realization that China is determined to play hard ball in the South China Sea.”
Indeed, this looks like a delayed follow up to US President Barack Obama’s declaration of the US “pivot” to Asia announced in the Australian parliament during a separate visit in 2011.
And how will the US go about dealing with the China threat? One way is to forge a common strategy with ASEAN member states, as a number of them are contesting China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. One example is that ASEAN members might be encouraged to form joint maritime patrols.
The commander of the US Navy Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas said: “If ASEAN members were to take the lead in organizing something along those lines, trust me, the US Seventh Fleet would be ready to support.”
Rebutting the idea that China’s threat might not eventuate, Harris told the dinner gathering in Canberra: “As we like to say in navy circles: Hope is not a strategy.”
The US already has security alliances with some regional countries, though they are not specifically directed against China. It periodically holds military exercises with its regional allies. Australia, for example, is a strong partner and has not made any secret of its concern about China’s regional claims — at least the way Beijing is pursuing them. Similarly, Japan is a US ally and Tokyo is embroiled in a row with China over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, which has the potential for a military clash. Taiwan also claims the islands.
Japan is also helping Vietnam and the Philippines by supplying naval patrol boats to help them face the Chinese threat.
As Alan Dupont of the University of NSW in Sydney said: “We need to work with our nearest neighbors to persuade China that it is not in their best interest to militarize South China Sea and there would be consequences in doing so.”
However, Beijing does not seem terribly perturbed, appearing quietly confident that the countries in the region will have no choice but to accept the new realities of its power. This was reflected in a strong rebuke from China to Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop’s criticism of China’s air defense identification zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The Global Times newspaper, affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said at the time that Australia (and other countries, for that matter) would be forced to adjust its rhetoric to the realities of international bargaining power.
“Bishop calls for standing up to China, but what resources does she have to do so with?” it added.
In economic terms, Australia’s future seems tied up with China as its biggest trading partner.
Other regional countries might not be as heavily dependent on trade with China, but it is emerging as the economic powerhouse for the region and, indeed, for the world. China’s proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is an example of the nation’s economic clout that will supplement its growing military power. Starting by the end of this year with an initial capitalization of US$50 billion, the AIIB seems to be making a healthy start with many countries already signing up as foundation members. Despite US pressure, some of its closest European allies, like Britain, Germany and France, are keen to be part of it. Japan, which has a prominent role in the World Bank, does not appear to have been invited.
India, Asia’s second-largest country, is in it, and the US’ major Asia-Pacific ally, Australia, has also made a decision to be part of it as soon as some matters about its functioning are resolved.
The US, on the other hand, is opposed to the AIIB because it will weaken the post-World War II global financial architecture by creating a parallel structure dominated by China. The decision by some of its closest allies to join the AIIB is dictated by the prospect of economic opportunities from investment in the vast infrastructure needs of the Asian region.
With an initial capitalization of US$100 billion — half of that figure from China — the AIIB’s financial role will expand over the years with China’s US$4 trillion in foreign reserves. The economic potential of the AIIB is one major reason that the US’ closest allies are prepared to go against Washington’s advice.
Another reason is that they would like to shape the governing structure of the AIIB so that it does not simply end up being China’s strategic tool to supplement its political influence.
Australia’s thinking in this respect gives some insight. Announcing his country’s decision to consider joining the AIIB, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot said: “Key matters to be resolved before Australia considers joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank include the bank’s board of directors having authority over key investment decisions, and that no one country control the bank” among other things.
However, China might not be too keen on replicating the governing structure and practices of the World Bank and IMF. As Li Ruogu (李若谷), a former chairman of China’s Export-Import Bank said: “This newly established institution cannot be a clone of the old ones [where the US and its European allies have pre-eminent roles]; we are working in a very different environment.”
Indeed. China would want its own way and pursue its own national interests, and might not be averse to using its economic, political and military assets to that end.
Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.
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