Today, ambiguity predominates in the Asia-Pacific region concerning international relations and the rise of China. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, unipolarity was challenged with endless expenditure together with military and political exhaustion on the part of the United States. However, by the initial term of Obama, the U.S. began to rebalance its focus to the Asia-Pacific in order to stick with the greater picture of global change and interests as well as to re-expand its shrinking political elbow-room throughout a rising region. Obama’s commitment to the East Asia Summit and Clinton’s recent visits to regional countries imply that we will see a more proactive U.S. diplomacy throughout the region in the near future.
Contrary to the widespread perception, U.S. is not basically building-up in the Asia-Pacific. It is cutting-off its defense budget in overall, but shifting its existing forces from various parts of the Middle East and Europe to the Asia-Pacific. Washington declares that this is a natural process which does not entail that U.S. “pivot to Asia” is intrinsically “against China”, more than it is “about China”. The core interests of the U.S. rests within the rapidly rising region, hosting half of the world’s population, world’s primary maritime trade routes, and one third of the global economy. Therefore according to U.S. officials giving voice to the formal stance of a “resident power” in the region, current American policies toward the Asia-Pacific bear by no means any resemblance to Cold-War policies such as containing the rival through a web of alliances and military bases. At the end, where else should the U.S. forces have been deployed other than the Asia-Pacific through the lens of any rational decision-maker?
What does the long-disputed TPP stand for?
The global community has witnessed the stall of Doha Round in 2008 under the roof of World Trade Organization (WTO). Official discourse of the U.S. associates the establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with this development, claiming that it was a necessity for providing with an alternative against U.S.-excluding free trade agreements in the region. TPP also contributes to a multi-faceted framework placing the U.S. at the center of emerging regional issues such as security disputes and economic cooperation; with bilateral security agreements with the U.S. and the APEC at the outset. And it is open to any regional country that wishes to participate, including China.
While it is clear that TPP poses no potential to alternate China’s FTAs and economic inter-dependence with regional markets, it is still a source of controversy for China. Because alternative regional security networks to be led by the United States on the grounds of the TPP may exclude or ignore China to a considerable extent.
On China’s disputes with neighbors
Until 2008, China pursued a smile-face policy toward Japan and its other maritime neighbors. But according to Washington, Beijing deviated from its moderate course and this led its neighbors including Vietnam, India and Japan to look for U.S. assistance against Chinese “aggression”. Therefore, it is relatively smaller counterparts of China rather than the United States, which asked the latter to “embrace them” for help, and not the vice versa.
United States further insists that China’s so-called “nine-dotted line”, which is used to demarcate Chinese claims over the islands and EEZs in the South China Sea, should be reconciled with disputed positions of other claimants with regard to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982. At the end, Washington remarks that its aim is not to contain or confront China, but to engage with the latter in a way to reach a region-wide consensus. On the other hand, recent U.S. engagement with Myanmar, its efforts in gaining a foothold in Kyrgyzstan and the missile shield project in Taiwan can be evaluated as a “counter-punching” strategy against “unwarranted” Chinese assertiveness in the region against the backdrop of ceasing U.S. influence in the region before 2009.
It is a common perception of both the U.S. and regional countries that China’s strategy of ambivalence should be cleared explicitly, in order to sooth appropriate concerns of its rivals as well as friends. Today, conflicting perceptions and projections regarding Chinese intentions bear the risk of polarizing the ASEAN, and hence the main grounds for stability and cooperation throughout the Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, ASEAN still stands forth as a mediocre, neutral and increasingly powerful entity. It is a candidate to become a vitally prospective game changer in global power balances as its growth is intertwined with the sustenance peace and prosperity in Asia. Nevertheless, with the comeback of the U.S. as a regional balancer to a rising China recently, the context in the region has further evolved into a source of conflict bypassing ASEAN; between Japan, United States and China.
Evolving regional balances
China faces a unique opportunity to pursue consensual agreements with its counterparts nowadays, as a course of changes in governments is underway in the region; in China, the U.S., Japan and South Korea. However, it should be noted that Japan is always vulnerable to a lean toward the right because of its political volatility and historical perceptions against China, Taiwan and South Korea. Also as a matter of fact; the Philippines, India, Vietnam and Japan continue to receive wrong signals from assertive U.S. policies in the region. If peace is broken in the Asia-Pacific, it will be due to the fact that these countries may trust and rely on the United States, in a way outreaching their strong supporter’s aims and capabilities.
In addition, the free movement of its naval fleet will not cease to constitute a major concern for a maritime power like the U.S. And the Asia-Pacific region hosts vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and key straits for the global transportation of energy as well as various other strategic items. Therefore U.S. strategic strongholds in the region cannot be risked so easily, considering it has already lost its grasp of power throughout the region considerably, especially since it has abandoned various military bases scattered across the Pacific mostly after the Vietnam War and the Cold War.
To secure its maritime mobility and predominance, the U.S. aims to convince China into a consensus with its counterparts on disputes pertaining islands and EEZs thereof. Finalization of a code of conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, maintaining coordination of and consensus on military activities in any EEZs, and creating another CoC for the East China Sea (between China, Japan and Taiwan) are the three pillars of U.S. foreign policy toward the maritime zones surrounding China. Nonetheless, it is still not correct to claim that U.S. considers China as an adversary. Two countries’ joint stance and actions concerning the Gulf of Aden poses a nice example of how their interests converge in a globalized, interdependent and economic world facing unconventional challenges.
A race of intimidation between China and Japan
Deng Xiaoping, the father of the on-going reform era for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has once stated clearly that China should “hide its talent, therefore bide its time” while climbing the ladders of economic development. Current President of China Hu Jintao also added to Deng’s words that PRC should also “reach concrete achievements” while preserving the core of mild, reformist policies. Therefore Hu underlined his position that some core interests of China are never negotiable, thus China should not give the impression that it takes a moderate stance instead of a hawkish one concerning such basic policy-lines.
According to Tokyo, it is a matter of time before China claims as a core interest a significant part of the Ryukyu Island Chain, namely the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan. Gaining a further front for dispute may be used as a leverage to bolster China’s previous claims over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea between the two countries. Indeed, there is no doubt that there are some solid reasons for Japanese decision-makers to be suspicious about China’s attitudes and agenda regarding the dispute. In May 2012 during a visit to China by Japanese PM Yoshiniko Noda, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao referred to the islands together with Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. Again in 2012, PRC’s official People’s Daily described the islands as a “core interest” just the way Hu Jintao did.
Japan prefers to classify the EEZ claims and relevant assertive actions on the part of China as “incursions” to its sovereignty over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands about which the former believes it has no dispute with the latter at all since the islands are legally, historically and de facto Japanese territory anyway. Therefore in case of “contingency”, the crisis has the strong potential to pave the way for a prelude to military action. As Japan’s number one ally in the Pacific, the United States cannot be expected to stay neutral against China in such a serious scenario.
Although it requires overcoming medium-term and difficult processes for the U.S. to abandon the Middle Eastern stage and shift its focus elsewhere, it is inevitable. U.S. rebalancing to Asia-Pacific is naturally in correspondence to a changing international context from a strategic perspective. On the other hand, it seems highly unlikely for greater and smaller actors other than Japan in the Asia-Pacific to consent to taking opposite sides with China rigidly in terms of a Cold War style polarization.
The rise of China cannot be stopped externally. China is expected become a maritime power with higher technology in the information age of today. However, rising power and rule-abiding responsibility should assert themselves hand in hand. The new phase in Asia-Pacific security context, dominated by a feeling of insecurity regarding China’s future path and ambitions, will bring together a major but difficult fork in the road ahead of the U.S.: Will the latter accept sharing power and decision-making authority in a revised international order? In other terms, will inclusiveness and practicality determine the future of diplomatic mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific; or formalism and containment policies?