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.
In response to China’s patrolling harassment, Japan has decided to strengthen its defense capabilities by significantly increasing its defense budget and effectively reinforcing military deployments in its southwestern region with more advanced fighter jets and patrol vessels.
With the rising escalation of military tension, if diplomatic mediation between Tokyo and Beijing does not work out, the risks of an unwanted military clash between the world’s second and third-largest economies could become imminent, and the stakes of this could be momentous.
Some argue that China’s latest antagonistic behaviors were triggered by Japan’s reckless policy of nationalizing three of the disputed islands, and partially stirred by some Southeast Asian nations’ provocative actions in the South China Sea, while others contend that China was deliberately challenging the existing power structure of East Asia established by the US in the aftermath of World War II.
Undeniably, without its economic achievement and military modernization over the past decades, China would not have had sufficient resolve or competence to take decisive military action in defending its sovereignty claims on both issues, given that its hostile behavior could be interpreted by the US as a challenge to the “status quo” and provoke pre-emptive intervention.
After the decade-long “anti-terror” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the massive blow the 2008 global financial crisis dealt the US economy, many believed that the US is a debilitated and declining hegemon.
Since it has been vexed with a domestic fiscal plight, the US does not have the willingness or ability to resume its global military outreach. This could open a window of opportunity for China to revamp its power structure in East Asia.
However, with the first US Pacific president elected in 2008, US President Barack Obama’s administration has swiftly shifted the US’ strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region by taking a wide range of diplomatic, economic, military and strategic steps to intensify its role and fortify the US’ interests in the region.
This latest policy shift has been termed a US “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia. The ultimate goal of this, according to US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, is to promote US interests by helping to shape the norms and rules of the Asia-Pacific region, and to ensure respect for international law, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution on disagreements without threats or coercion. To realize Obama’s claim that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future,” the US has taken various steps in deepening its engagements with Asian countries.
For instance, in the military realm, the US announced new troop deployments in Australia and Singapore, reinvigorated its formal alliances, such as with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and extended its strategic partners to include India, Indonesia, New Zealand and Vietnam.
On the diplomatic front, the US has been actively participating in various regional multilateral organizations, such as APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit.
In the economic field, the US has vigorously promoted ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations for facilitating deeper and broader economic integration in the region.
The above efforts suggest that as a relatively weakened hegemon, the US has not relinquished its leading role in East Asia. It has strived to reinforce its influence by taking comprehensive and far-reaching strategic moves to maintain its leadership.
Inevitably, the US’ pivot to Asia is not perceived well by China, especially by Chinese military leaders who tend to view it as a devious US strategy of containing China.
It is not surprising why China, as an emerging superpower and a future challenger to US domination in the world order, is suspicious of US intentions behind this policy. After all, China has been deliberately left out by Washington’s military and economic initiatives.
In both US-led multilateral military exercises in the Pacific Ocean and the TPP negotiations, China was not invited.
Furthermore, on both territorial disputes, the US has not taken the side of China by announcing that the US-Japan military alliance covers the disputed islands and by asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, undermining China’s territorial claims.
In the eyes of China, the US has been regarded as an instigator behind the scenes in encouraging other countries to gang up on China to prevent its ascent to its “righteous” place in the global system.
From a power politics perspective, it seems unavoidable that Sino-US competition may eventually lead to confrontation. Nevertheless, the complexity of global economic interdependence may constrain more adventurous military actions and attenuate the likelihood of military conflict.
Since most East Asian countries have adopted a two-pronged policy by pursuing economic benefits from China and seeking security and peace from the US, the cool-headed economic calculation is likely to mitigate a frenzy of nationalist sentiment.
This is why China has punished Japan and the Philippines through economic sanctions in the past, but has not launched a decisive war to “teach them a lesson.”
Nevertheless, facing a more assertive China, many East Asian countries have decided to take a military hedged or balancing strategy rather than a bandwagoning one.
Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe has not only vowed to take a tough stance against China, but also revitalized so-called “values-based diplomacy” to elevate Japan’s moral and strategic weight in comparison with China’s.
Furthermore, Myanmar, which had been regarded as a close partner of China, has made some remarkable reforms recently.
Not only has former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton paid an unprecedented visit to the country, but Obama also became the first US president to meet Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi last year.
Myanmar’s latest political U-turn toward the West undoubtedly embarrasses Beijing, which not only reveals that US influences have openly penetrated China’s backyard, but also suggests that US-promoted values, such as democracy and human rights, have successfully gained ground in this isolated “hermit country.”
Only time will tell whether China can successfully replace the US as the world hegemon, but it is certain that the US will not easily abandon its leadership and interests in East Asia.
A power only having extreme physical capabilities does not make it a hegemon, since the hegemony does not merely depend on its invincible military but on its admirable features and values as a leader.
Most importantly, it needs to assume leadership and to have firm supporters to follow its lead. In this regard, it seems that China has more work to do rather than just showing off its muscles.
It is in no one’s interests to see China’s rise “alone,” but it is in everyone’s interests if China’s ascent can bring more peace and prosperity to the region. In the end, only the warmth of sunshine can dispel uncertain clouds from the region.
Eric Chiou is an associate research fellow at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.