• Will East Asia’s island disputes ignite conflict?



    If Beijing wants its Asian neighbors to desist from joining a Washington-led defense alliance against China, its recent actions seem to be doing the opposite. Whatever may be its domestic and defense policy rationale, the entry of Chinese vessels in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas over the past couple of months cannot but stir worry, if not alarm across East Asia.

    Or maybe not.

    China’s latest incursions have again ruffled staunch U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines, which, Beijing may figure, can’t get any cosier with the Americans. So rather than pushing fence-sitters to jump to Washington’s side, the sailings may simply give more of the same warning China has been dispensing to Vietnam, Malaysia, and other East Asian states about bringing the United States into their territorial rows.

    The bigger question, of course, is where the chronic frictions will lead. Will they eventually spark armed conflict? Or can they be wound down, if not resolved, in coming years?

    The answer to the last two questions is probably not. War over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas is unlikely for now, but so is a de-escalation of the current tense or even intensifying situation between China and Japan as well as the Philippines.

    While willing to assert its maritime claims with armed vessels and fishing boats, Beijing will seek to avoid hostilities and preserve the peace and harmony needed for continued economic, investment and trade growth vital to China’s development, including its geopolitical clout and military advancement.

    Chinese exports to America and Japan, and American and Japanese investments in China are major sources of wealth which would quickly shut off in a war. Also crucial: access to U.S. technology vital to modernization and even defense. And even the most hawkish PLA generals know that America remain vastly superior in armaments, despite Chinese advances in ballistic missiles and stealth aircraft which have surprised U.S. defense experts.

    America too aims to avoid direct confrontation, while projecting itself as counterbalance to what Western media sees as an increasingly aggressive China. For one thing, Washington needs Beijing’s cooperation in addressing a host of global security issues, from North Korea’s missile threats to Syria’s uprising and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

    With its still-struggling economy and gargantuan government deficits and debts, the U.S. also wants continued access to the mammoth Chinese market—expected to surpass it as the world’s largest by 2025 or sooner. Washington also needs hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese financing of its fiscal borrowings through annual purchases of U.S. Treasury bills. They now comprise over $1 trillion of China’s currency reserves, the largest T-bill hoard outside of the U.S. Federal Reserve, America’s central bank.

    For similar economic, geopolitical and security reasons, Japan is keen to avoid war with China, which also boasts vastly superior forces. And puny Philippines is even more dwarfed by Chinese military might. So while both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino 3rd have been publicly talking tough against perceived Chinese aggression, neither would care for a real shooting war now or ever.

    Well, if no one wants a war, why can’t these disputes be settled or at least downplayed?

    Answer: because territorial tensions and war fears shore up domestic support for the Beijing, Manila and Tokyo governments, and help advance Washington’s geopolitical and defense agenda in the region, especially its Pivot to Asia strategy.

    It’s a common political strategy: pointing to or even provoking an external threat to boost popular support for a nation’s leader and silence dissenting voices. Most citizens will set aside differences and unite to defend the motherland against aggression. And as can be quickly gleaned from online blogs and exchanges, the prevailing sentiment among ordinary Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos is to assert and defend their claimed islands and waters.

    For its part, Uncle Sam has exploited the tensions and confrontations in the East and South China Seas to push for an expanded U.S. military presence in the region and tighter alliances with key countries. At major regional conferences in recent years, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton constantly stressed America’s role in guaranteeing peace and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, while warning Asian nations about territorial tensions.

    The Aquino administration has dutifully played its part in America’s effort to cast China as an aggressor unwilling to resolve disputes by international law rather than armed might.

    Besides turning away from the past policy of confidence-building and even collaboration in disputed areas, Manila has faced off with Beijing in the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal.

    The Philippines also filed for United Nations arbitration, even if its decades-old official position on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea rejects UNCLOS in territorial and sovereignty issues. And in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summits, President Aquino has complicated ongoing ASEAN-China talks on a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by pushing for the grouping to forge a common position first before continuing discussions hosted by Beijing for several years now.

    The high-seas confrontations with the Chinese have also given justification for both increased U.S. military deployment in the Philippines and the Aquino government’s shift of the armed forces from internal security to external defense, including the long-overdue building up naval and air force assets and capabilities.

    Unfortunately for Philippine security, the regular rotation of nuclear-armed U.S. warships and submarines in the archipelago has in fact provoked threats of nuclear attack on the country, while making it harder to get Chinese agreement on the Code of Conduct.

    As noted in this writer’s April 15 column, U.S. nuke-carrying ships and subs can hit eight of China’s ten most populous cities, including Shanghai and Hong Kong, from the Philippines. That nuclear threat emanating from within the country’s borders cannot but force the PLA to target the Philippines with its ballistic forces.

    That defensive response became even more imperative with the statements of both Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario offering U.S. forces access to Philippine naval and air bases in the event of an “emergency” due to North Korea’s war threats. China will then have to conclude that the same offer could be extended in the event of another emergency, like a war between America and China over Taiwan. Like the Philippines, Taiwan has a mutual defense treaty with the U.S.

    As for the Code of Conduct, the increased U.S. naval and air presence in the Philippines and the South China Sea has made China reluctant to sign an agreement restricting its own military deployment in the area. Instead, the Chinese are having to beef up defense facilities and forces in the South China Sea, if only to match American might, which can threaten Chinese maritime trade passing through those waters, including four-fifths of its oil imports.

    So bottom line: no war over maritime territorial disputes, but no letup in tensions either.

    That means more war headlines, increased arms buying and, sadly, more arrests and shootings of fishermen.


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