China hegemony to face resistance

By Sushil Seth  / 

Mon, Aug 29, 2011 - Page 8

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.

China, of course, seeks to do something similar, but without the use of brute force, so far. However, it has the same intention of dominating the region to the exclusion of other powers.

This sort of bellicosity doesn’t square with China’s often-stated declaration that it is not a “hegemonic” power and does not aspire to be one — a claim uttered often in the past decade, but one heard much less recently.

Beijing thinks it has found a way around accusations of hegemonism. By referring to its regional claims as sovereignty issues, China’s territorial aspirations cease to be hegemonic in nature, as far as Beijing is concerned. This concept of territorial enlargement is very flexible and can be expanded as China gains power and its national interests expand to the far corners of the world.

China is developing a blue-water navy to enforce its writ — the recent test runs of its aircraft carrier is a forerunner of things to come.

A recent Pentagon report, titled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, paints a rather disturbing picture of future trends.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Michael Schiffer said the pace and scope of China’s military buildup is “potentially destabilizing,” not only because of its new weaponry, but also because of a lack of transparency.

The US and China’s neighbors are understandably worried, so they have developed a two-fold response.

First, some of them are developing closer ties to the US to counter the growing military might of China. Second, they are also beefing up their own military forces as a credible deterrence.

For instance, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are reinforcing their defenses by buying new weapons and equipment, as well as renewing their defense ties with the US.

Vietnam and the US are creating new strategic linkages to counter China. The Philippines is invoking its defense alliance with the US in the face of China’s intrusions into its territorial waters around the islands it claims in the South China Sea.

If China continues to claim sovereignty over contested islands and waterways, and aggressively pursues domination over its neighbors, the Asia-Pacific region will face turbulent times in the years ahead.

China, though, will face tough resistance to its new Monroe Doctrine — named after former US president James Monroe, who formulated a doctrine in 1823 that forbade European powers from further colonizing the Western Hemisphere — for the region.

First, the US is unlikely to let China turn the region into its exclusive enclave. At the same time, China’s neighbors will not willingly become part of its newly formulated Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

China should know that because it fought against Japan when the Japanese sought to impose military domination on China and the region.

Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.