Friday, July 23, 2010

China and the US: Head to head =UPDATED=

As Western governments engage in "austerity" and invite another round of recession, out in Asia robust stimulus efforts and job retention programs have paid off in growth and jobs. Something to think about when reading what's below....

Lots of conversations this week in the Taiwanosphere about the International Court of Justice's decision on independence for Kosovo (Wiki: for bonus joy read the comments from the UN reps and imagine what they'd say about Taiwan. NY Times report.). The Kosovo decision has nothing to do with us -- it is great that the Court recognized a legal right of independence, but remember -- TAIWAN IS NOT PART OF CHINA. So Taiwan is not declaring independence FROM anyone. So this opinion is nice, but doesn't really apply to The Beautiful Island. The US, for all its nefarious reasons for supporting Kosovan independence, was right when it said the whole discussion is meaningless because you don't win independence in Court.

But Kosovo wasn't the real news. The huge news was that somebody gave the Obama Administration a spine implant. Yes, America imitated a ton of bricks on the South China Sea Islands dispute....

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at an Asian regional security meeting in Vietnam, stressed that the United States remained neutral on which regional countries had stronger territorial claims to the islands. But she said that the United States had an interest in preserving free shipping in the area and that it would be willing to facilitate multilateral talks on the issue.

Though presented as an offer to help ease tensions, the stance amounts to a sharp rebuke to China. Beijing has insisted for years that all the islands belong to China and that any disputes should be resolved by China. In March, senior Chinese officials pointedly warned their American counterparts that they would brook no interference in the South China Sea, which they called part of the “core interest” of sovereignty.

The declaration that the South China Sea Islands are a "core interest" of China essentially amounts to a declaration that China is willing to go to war -- actually, willing to cause one. The US just spoke up [clap clap clap], saying that China needs to grow up on this issue and signaling to other nations in the South China Sea littoral, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Way to go Team Obama!

The US has also made several other pointed demonstrations recently. At the end of June US submarines armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles surfaced in various Asian sites, which observers took to be a pointed message to Beijing.
Many nations in the eastern Pacific, including Australia, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, have been encouraging the U.S. to push back against what they see as China's increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea. And the U.S. military remains concerned over China's growing missile force - now more than 1,000 - near the Taiwan Strait. The Tomahawks' arrival "is part of a larger effort to bolster our capabilities in the region," Glaser says. "It sends a signal that nobody should rule out our determination to be the balancer in the region that many countries there want us to be." No doubt Beijing got the signal.
The Diplomat said:
Indeed, China seems to regard the maritime global commons in a proprietary fashion. For a given area, the Chinese wish either to dominate it or for others to stay away; in effect, in the Chinese view, there’s no ‘commons.’ China calling the South China Sea a ‘core concern’ is an attempt to place clear, Chinese-declared limits on the ability of the international community to assert its rights under international law.

In contrast, long-standing US diplomatic and military doctrine has been explicit that navies—including China’s—have every right to operate on the high seas, even including in the territorial waters of other states. In support of this doctrine, Washington has attempted to establish a strong and open dialogue with the Chinese military. China, on the other hand, sees US operations inside the first island chain as impinging on its sovereignty, just as it has a very expansive interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as to its authority within its own (and contested) Exclusive Economic Zones. China’s combination of its international legal strategies with naval force is telling: unlike the other claimants to the South China Sea, China backs up its words with military force.
The Diplomat piece picked up this scary comment on the recent US-South Korean exercises under which a US carrier sailed in the ocean near Beijing:
Another leading academic, Shen Dingli of Fudan University, extended the logic of the recent official assertion that the South China Sea is a ‘core interest’ of China when he wrote that: ‘When the US ponders the idea of deploying its nuclear aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, very close to China, shouldn’t China have the same feeling as the US did when the Soviet Union deployed missiles in Cuba?’
Think about what kind of attitude that reveals towards freedom of the seas. Out of concern for the feelings of the 1.3 billion people of China, the US and South Korea moved the exercises to the Sea of Japan (bad move! weak, weak, weak!). Japan is sending a few observers to the exercises, a significant signal as well. UPDATED: It should be recalled that (1) the Chinese conducted exercises close to Japan recently and (2) the carrier George Washington transited the Yellow Sea in October (source).

The US also took some potshots at Myanmar on human rights, Myanmar being a close friend of Beijing. The shifting US position also reflects China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean. To operate a blue-water navy China will need bases....

Finally, Steve Clemons published an interesting piece at The Diplomat arguing that Beijing's current swagger actually covers a profound insecurity. After observing that Beijing respects firm responses but perceives the US as weak and a power in decline, he writes:

The irony of all of this is that China doesn’t want US power to fall away rapidly—it wants the United States to remain a vital, global force with which China has deep structural relations.

The reason? China wants to free-ride on US global power because it fears its own internal fragility. China knows that it’s not ready to carry the burden of global stability and isn’t ready to position itself as a provider of global public goods while it’s still in a mode of highly concentrated neo-mercantilist self interest.

China fears the Obama administration is weak, very weak—and that the world will keep provoking the United States to see where its power begins and ends. In fact, China is doing the same thing—testing US resolve, including rejecting six times US-Republic of Korea joint military exercises that will now go on despite Chinese objections (which they have themselves recently softened).

That's exactly right. China needs US cooperation to allow it access to the international system and to pursue its neo-mercantilist policies under the guise of "free trade". In fact, China has created a whole class of individuals in the US beholden to those policies. Scary. Read the whole thing, it is quite interesting.

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4 comments:

Dixteel said...

"China needs US cooperation to allow it access to the international system and to pursue its neo-mercantilist policies under the guise of 'free trade'."

Indeed so. One cannot imagine "China's Rise" (or as I usually like to call it, China's Erection) without the US in the picture.

We are living in a complex time... It would be "interesting" to see where all these lead us to.

Don said...

Appreciated the link to Steve Clemons in The Diplomat. Have thrown in my own tuppence-worth under the comments there

Adam said...

Good thoughts. The South China Sea issue is an important and largely-ignored subtext to China's repeated calls for multi-lateral, international cooperation in addressing North Korea. The US has really stepped up its diplomatic strategy in East Asia.

But, I do think it was the right move to hold the first round of these exercises in the East Sea/Sea of Japan in order to negate China's claims that the US is using North Korea as a pretext to encircle and contain China. This was a very reasonable compromise to make, especially since everything I've read indicates that Yellow Sea drills will go forward sometime late-summer/early-fall. I also think it was smart to downplay the significance of China's own naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. The only mistake I think the US has made thus far has been its assertions of absolute certainty regarding North Korean responsibility for the Cheonan. Asserting "reasonable certainty" or "strong likelihood" or something of that nature would have been just as effective, and would have provided some flexibility in the face of some of the doubts surrounding the veracity of the investigation. I don't think "beyond a reasonable doubt" is necessary to justify defensive maneuvers with an ally in one's own territorial waters.

China's territorial claims in the South China Sea are absolutely absurd, and now is a brilliant time to call attention to the issue, from a strategic perspective. It is probably coming as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people who were accusing the United States of an aggressive, destabilizing reaction to the Cheonan incident. Perhaps now, people will start to remember that China is not the only country that matters in Asia. Let's just hope no real shots are fired any time soon...

Thomas said...

"I do think it was the right move to hold the first round of these exercises in the East Sea/Sea of Japan in order to negate China's claims that the US is using North Korea as a pretext to encircle and contain China. This was a very reasonable compromise to make"

Adam, the drill is being packaged as a China-encirclement measure in China regardless. Perhaps the US and the South Koreans have managed to lower the volume of China's rebukes by holding the drill in the East China Sea, but the rebukes continue nonetheless. You have a valid point, but your use of the word "negate" was not entirely appropriate for the above reason.