Relations between China and the United States have taken a confrontational turn in the wake of a series of initiatives taken by President Barack Obama in his recent trip to Hawaii and Asia. While taking part for the first time in the East Asia Summit in Bali, Obama and his aides reiterated the U.S. commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. They stressed that settlement to sovereignty rows in the area must be in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Obama approved the sale of 24 F16-C/D jetfighters to Indonesia, which—together with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan—has disputed China’s claims to the entire South China Sea. During a stopover in Australia, Obama announced that up to 2,500 marines would be stationed at Darwin, North Australia. Given that Darwin is a mere 600 miles from the southern tip of the Sea, the move is interpreted as an effort to boost U.S. ability to intervene in the flashpoint zone. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit Burma next month in an apparent effort to improve ties with China’s long-standing client state. Finally, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in Hawaii, Obama made a big push for the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), a potential free trade area for some ten nations that do not include China. All these measures seem to exacerbate what Beijing perceives as an “anti-China containment policy” spearheaded by Washington (Washington Post, November 15; Associated Press, November 17; Wall Street Journal, November 18).
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has taken multiple steps to counter the fusillades unleashed by the United States’ first “Pacific President.” At the rhetorical level, commentators in the state media as well as semi-official academics have warned Washington’s bid to be “back in Asia” may endanger regional peace and stability in addition to harming Sino-U.S. relations. In a strongly worded commentary, the Xinhua News Agency asserted the Obama administration’s maneuvers were geared toward imposing U.S. leadership in Asia for the self-serving goal of rendering the 21st century “America’s Pacific century.” “If the United States sticks to its Cold War mentality and continues to engage with Asian nations in a self-assertive way, it is doomed to incur repulsion in the region,” Xinhua warned. The party mouthpiece added that recent U.S. policies could result in “sparking disputes and encroaching on others’ interests,” which might in turn jeopardize “the region’s stability and prosperity” (Xinhua News Agency, November 19; Agence France-Presse, November 19). According to Renmin University’s U.S. specialist Shi Yinhong, Sino-U.S. relations have entered a “very important new stage.” “It is very obvious that the United States is aiming to contain and constrain China,” he said. Tsinghua University international affairs expert Sun Zhe noted the U.S. gambit in Asia “has gone from the level of slogans to diplomatic action in a speedy and effective manner.” He expressed fears that contention between China and the United States “has gone from under the table to center stage” (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], November 20; Chinadigitaltimes.net, November 19).
Given the top priority that China has attached to relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc as well as an early settlement of South China Sea disputes, much of Chinese leaders’ reactions have focused on preventing the United States from “meddling” in the sensitive area. Upon his arrival in Bali, Premier Wen Jiabao noted sovereignty conflicts “should be resolved among directly related sovereign countries through friendly consultation and negotiation in a peaceful way.” “Powers outside of the region should not interfere under whatever pretexts,” he added (Xinhua News Agency, November 18; Sina.com, November 19). Largely owing to Chinese pressure, the Philippines was unable to raise a motion at Bali calling for the resolution of the South China Sea issue through an international framework. This was despite the fact that during a visit to Manila last week, Secretary Clinton vowed to provide “greater support for [the Philippines’] external defense.” Washington also gave the Philippine defense forces another coast-guard vessel. “We are strongly of the opinion that [the dispute that] exists primarily in the West Philippines Sea between the Philippines and China should be resolved peacefully,” she said, using the Philippine term for the South China Sea (Voice of America, November 17; Philippine Star [Manila], November 19).
Beyond rhetoric, Beijing has adopted a multi-pronged approach to blunt Obama’s diplomatic offensive. The first is to reassure ASEAN members that Beijing harbors no hegemonic intentions and that it is willing to abide by the “rules of the game” arrived at with other sovereignty claimants. In his Bali speech, Premier Wen reiterated China’s commitment to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which Beijing concluded with ASEAN in 2002. The DOC was a non-binding set of pledges regarding safety of navigation and the peaceful use of the waters. “We hope relevant parties would take into concern the overall situation of regional peace and stability, and do something more conducive to mutual trust and cooperation,” Wen said. He added Beijing would continue to stick to the principle of “friendly negotiation and consultation in a peaceful way” to resolve South China Sea issues (China News Agency, November 19; China Daily, November 19). Chinese officials however have reiterated Beijing’s insistence on bilateral talks with individual claimants—and not a China-ASEAN dialogue—to settle sovereignty rows. Most ASEAN claimants are convinced that a multilateral approach, possibly involving outside parties including the United States, would strengthen their negotiation positions via-a-vis China.
Secondly, Beijing is wielding the time-tested “economics card” to gain the good will of ASEAN members, especially claimants to the South China Sea. Wen’s speech at the Bali summit emphasized the win-win scenarios of enhanced business ties with ASEAN under the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and other regional arrangements. He put forward a five-point proposal for boosting the regional economy, which included mutual investments, technological transfers and improvement of intra-regional infrastructure. “The Chinese side is willing to enthusiastically expand its investment in ASEAN countries, enhance the transfer of advanced and suitable technology and to jointly raise [our] industrial competitiveness,” Wen said. According to Zhang Weiwei, a strategist at the semi-official Chunqiu Composite Research Institute, Beijing should boost its overseas development aid program, including a possible “Southeast Asian version of the Marshall Plan.” Professor Zhang added this would not only improve China’s economic and political ties with Asian countries but also minimize the damages that the TPP might do to China (Xinhua News Agency, November 19; Global Times, November 17).
Indeed, enhancement of economic cooperation under the China-ASEAN FTA has the additional benefit of parrying the threat posed by the TPP, which is viewed by Chinese officials and scholars as a plot by Washington to “exclude” China from a potentially lucrative regional trading arrangement. According to Renmin University politics professor Peng Zhongying, the TPP is but a ploy with which “[a United States] that is in economic decline tries to pry open the markets of economically prosperous Asia-Pacific nations.” While American officials have indicated China is in theory able to apply for membership, TPP criteria relating to minimal state interference in the market as well as high labor standards would seem to militate against Chinese participation. Among ASEAN members, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam have expressed an interest in joining TPP. Other aspiring members include Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Canada, Mexico and Japan. (Washington Post, November 13; Global Times, November 19; Mainichi Daily [Tokyo] November 13).
While gunning to win the hearts and minds—or at least the wallets—of the majority of Asia-Pacific countries, Beijing is poised to use the time-honored tactic of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” (sha ji xia hou)so as to penalize “troublemakers” such as the Philippines and Vietnam. The strategy was laid out in an editorial of the Global Times titled “Cold-shoulder the Philippines: let it pay the price.” The provocative state-run tabloid said “In the process of ‘penalizing’ the Philippines, China must not go overboard, lest the region’s fear of China increases.” China’s punishment of the Philippines however must be “forceful,” the editorial added, “so that the Philippines has to pay a substantial price.” The mass-circulation paper suggested the best way is to “cold-shoulder the Philippines even as China’s cooperation with the entire Southeast Asia becomes more entrenched.” According to Renmin University foreign policy expert Jin Canrong, China should “use different tactics toward different Southeast Asian countries.” He proposed imposing economic sanctions on countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, “which have made the most noises” against China. “China can send a message to these countries by decreasing aid to them or temporarily stopping Chinese tourists from visiting them,” Professor Jin indicated (Global Times, November 19, November 17; BBC News, November 17).
Beijing’s potentially most potent weapon to whip ASEAN members into line is its fast-modernizing navy. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is developing a blue-water fleet that boosts sophisticated hardware ranging from nuclear submarines to aircraft carriers. There have been reports the past few months that the PLAN will base its fourth fleet—which eventually may consist of two to three aircraft carrier battle groups—in Sanya, a city in south Hainan Island. Sanya sits on the northern tip of the South China Sea. This armada will complement the Qingdao-based North Sea Fleet, the Ningbo-based East Sea Fleet and the Zhanjiang-based SouthSea fleet. China’s naval power projection reached a new height last August with the maiden voyage of its first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, which was a refitted version of a Ukrainian vessel that China acquired in the 1990s. PLAN shipyards are believed to be building up to three Chinese-designed state-of-the-art carriers that could come on stream in the latter half of this decade (Korea Herald [Seoul] September 9; Business Standard [New Delhi], August 16; China Daily, July 29).
The message that Beijing does not rule out a military solution to the South China Sea imbroglio has been sent via the Global Times, which is often regarded as a propaganda vehicle for hawkish elements in the Chinese establishment. In a much-noted commentary in late October, Global Times warned that aggressive sovereignty claimants to the South China Sea such as Vietnam and the Philippines should “mentally prepare for the sound of cannons.” “China should not give pride of place to force and use the military option as its national policy,” it pointed out. “Yet China must also not rely solely on negotiations. In times of exigencies, it should ‘kill one to scare off the hundred’.” More recently, Global Times ran an article by National Defense University strategist Fan Jinfa that the authorities should take a pugilistic approach to prevent other nations from grabbing Chinese territories in the South China Sea. “Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have occupied territories in the Spratly Islands,” said Fan, a former naval captain. “We should be more proactive in order to enhance de facto occupation and control” of islets in the disputed waters (Global Times, November 11, October 25; Reuters, October 25).
Will Beijing’s game plan work? Much depends on the Obama’s administration’s ability to gain the support of heavyweight countries in the Asia-Pacific theatre to participate in its “pivot-on-Asia” strategy. Indeed, much of the CCP leadership’s nervousness stems from the fact that for the first time, India and Japan seem to be joining the alleged U.S. attempt to contain China through “internationalizing” the South China Sea issue. Indian state oil companies have signed agreements with Hanoi to exploit oil and gas close to islets that are also claimed by China. Tokyo recently concluded defense cooperation and intelligence exchange deals with both Vietnam and the Philippines. At Bali, the Japanese delegation inked a separate statement with ASEAN regarding ways and means to ensure unobstructed navigation in the South China Sea. Tokyo also has backed Manila’s effort to seek an “international solution” to territorial brawls in the contested waters. Despite problems in the Japanese economy, Tokyo last week pledged $25 billion in infrastructure-related aid and loans to ASEAN members (Ming Pao, November 19; Reuters, November 18; China News Service, November 18).
Yu Zhirong, a researcher at the China Oceanic Development Research Institute, asked a highly relevant question regarding the country’s run-in with a host of nations over the South China Sea. “China’s strength has increased and it should be striking fears [in the hearts of its neighbors],” he wrote in a recent article. “How come it faces enemies at the front and back over efforts to protect its maritime territorial rights?” (Xinhuanet.com, November 9; Sina.com, November 9). One answer to Yu’s question could be that China’s precipitous rise—coupled with its formidable projection of hard power in Asia—has given the United States an opportunity to stage a “return to Asia” campaign in the capacity of a protector to nations that shudder at the prospect of a fire-spitting dragon. As illustrated by the conversations that Obama had with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen in respectively Hawaii and Bali, both the United States and China however seem to prefer win-win scenarios to zero-sum games. The outcome of the epic struggle between the world’s sole superpower and the fast-rising quasi-superpower depends then, on the give-and-take between the two giants—as well as their ability to influence other stakeholders in the volatile region.