The main theme running through East Asian history in recent years has shifted away from economic issues and a war on terror, and is now focused on geopolitical conflict. The contest between the major powers -- which is becoming increasingly tense -- looks more and more like a "Cold War" between the US and China.
The contemporary focus in both East Asia and the world has changed. Apart from Taiwan, no one still believes in the empty cliche that the economy is everything. Over the past four years, the war on terror has receded from being clearly in focus to background buzz, and the anti-terror alliance between the US, Russia, China and other countries has practically disintegrated.
It has been replaced by a geopolitical contest between major powers, particularly the US and China. This is clearly indicated by recent incidents, including China National Offshore Oil Corp's (CNOOC) failure to take over the US oil company Unocal, Uzbekistan's decision to drive the US military off its territory, and the six-party talks about nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.
In the end, CNOOC had to back down from its attempt to acquire Unocal. This acquisition, which would have been the largest ever by a Chinese company had it succeeded, put the US on the alert against China, and it also revealed how contradictory the two countries' energy strategies are.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is aware that their greatest weakness lies in a lack of energy resources. Beijing is now seeking to increase its energy assets and secure diverse energy sources in Central Asia, Siberia and its nearby marine territories. It is also strengthening its navy to change the current situation in which the US controls the sea lanes through which China's crude oil is transported. Energy and the wish to gain regional hegemony is leading China to make a concrete attempt to become the dominant power in East Asia and the Western Pacific.
Concerns over energy security are making Beijing authorities eager to drive out US forces from Central Asia as a way of breaking through the US' "containment." On July 5, the Astana, Kazakhstan summit of the China and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) resulted in a joint communique citing the gradual stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan as a reason for demanding that the US present a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Central Asia.
On July 30, the Uzbek government sent a diplomatic note to the US government giving it 180 days to remove US troops and military equipment from the K2 base in Uzbekistan, possibly as a result of strong US criticism against the government following the May massacre by the Uzbek military of hundreds of residents of the city of Andijan. This is a rare setback for the US, and behind this decision by the Tashkent authorities was strong support from Russia and, most of all, China.
The US government is familiar with the Chinese communists' method of attack and their strategic ambitions. The Pentagon's latest annual report on China's military strength, which was issued on July 19, for the first time points out that China's active expansion of its military arsenal is not only aimed at Taiwan, but rather at "Taiwan and beyond."
The report says that, "Some Chinese military analysts have expressed the view that control of Taiwan would enable the PLA Navy to move its maritime defensive perimeter further seaward and improve Beijing's ability to influence regional sea lines of communication."
The changes in the Sino-US relationship clearly also affect the situation on the Korean Peninsula. The recently held fourth round of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue was the longest of the rounds. Although Russia (with China's blessing) used new ways of throwing US plans into disarray, the whole process shows that Washington has changed its policy and now is willing to keep negotiations going and reach a solution in order to deprive China of its "North Korean card." This places the US in a more advantageous position in its competition with China.
All signs point to China and the US now entering into a new version of the Cold War. The two are still important trading partners, but they are also becoming involved in a geopolitical struggle centering around their opposing energy strategies. This struggle is now heating up.
Chang Hsi-mo is an assistant professor at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University.
Translated by Daniel Cheng and Perry Svensson