China’s proclamation of an air defence zone over island territory in the East China Sea is claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo as stoking military tensions across the region.
The two largest economies in Asia continue to spar over disputed island territory, raising prospects of a maritime clash. US Vice President, Joe Biden, hastened to Japan that Washington shared its concerns over China’s recent moves. He also called on Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in Beijing to reaffirm China’s posture as a state policy based on national interest.
Washington is deploying six Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft in Japan, guided by a bilateral Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960 that pledges, “The Parties will consult together from time to time .., whenever the security of Japan or international peace and security in the Far East is threatened.” Described as the most advanced long-range anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft in the world, two of the P-8As have already arrived.
Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China and East China seas have sparked disputes with its neighbours, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. The contention has been the various island enclaves, not of much value in themselves, but the possession of which would provide continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from the low-water shoreline.
China and Japan have contesting claims over the uninhabited islands, called Diaoyu by the former and Senkaku by the latter. The two neighbours have been engaged in a prolonged territorial wrangle over this group of islets, as potentially vast gas and oil fields have been estimated off its shores. Both countries have hitherto strived to keep the dispute from spiralling, mindful of their entrenched commercial ties that have resulted in two-way trade reaching a record $345 billion last year, China being the biggest trading partner of Japan.
Apart from the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, China’s other competing claims in the region involve those with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei which each claim parts of the Paracel and Spratly island chains, and with the Philippines over the Scarborough/Panatag Shoal in the Philippine Sea that abuts onto the South China Sea.
Coincidentally or not, China’s maritime disputes with its neighbours in the littoral have been gaining global attention ever since U President Barack Obama’s announcement last January of his country’s ‘pivot’ strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Previous moves by Beijing to send patrol ships to Senkaku/ Diaoyu had provoked anti-Japan street protests across China, and led Japanese companies there to halt operations as a precaution and many Japanese expatriates to return home. Chinese Defence Minister, General Liang Guanglie, had also warned that Beijing reserved the right to take further action.
Apart from these maritime stand-offs, Beijing has for long been waging a border feud with India, Asia’s third largest economy after China and Japan. People’s Liberation Army soldiers frequently intrude deep into Indian territory across the 3,488-km border the two countries share, with recent skirmishes involving the setting up of camps, unfurling of banners warning ‘Indians’ to stay away, and the vandalisation of Indian border monitoring systems.
China had gone to war with India in 1962 in which it occupied 37,244 sq km of the Aksai Chin plateau adjoining the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. It also claims the 83,743 sq km State of Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India as part of South Tibet that it controls in the eastern sector of the Himalayas.
Beijing has long been affronted by India’s support to the Dalai Lama and New Delhi’s grant of refuge in India to the Tibetan spiritual leader and his compatriots in exile since 1959. But though the two Asian giants signed agreements in 1993 and 1996 to respect the Line of Actual Control and inked another pact on border sanctity during Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh’s, visit to China in October, Beijing took umbrage at Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s tour of Arunachal Pradesh just a week ago. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, quoted foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang as saying, “We hope that India will proceed along with China, protecting our broad relationship, and will not take any measures that could complicate the problem, and together we can protect peace and security in the border regions.”
Such ominous developments have been posing a threat to this fastest growing economic region in the world and its vital waterways, confounding diplomatic efforts, rousing hostilities and heralding a geopolitical power struggle between the world’s two leading economies of the US and China.
US Military Pivot to the Asia Pacific
The return of Asia-Pacific to the centre of world affairs is the great power shift of the 21st century. This economically integrated region is traversed by half the world’s commercial shipping worth $5 trillion of trade a year. More than 4.2 billion people live there, constituting 61 percent of the world’s population. And apart from straddling vital supply chains, this part of the world holds dense fishing grounds and potentially enormous oil and natural gas reserves, though at present it is a net importer of fossil fuels.
China surpassed the US in September 2013, as the world’s biggest net oil importer and its energy-hungry export-driven economy that is heavily dependent on raw material is keen on buttressing its suzerainty over the regional Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) that are critical to the survival of the entire Asia-Pacific community. Apart from investing in port construction in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Beijing has been extending its military reach in the Asia-Pacific through the establishment of a major surface fleet and nuclear-submarine base on the Hainan Island in the South China Sea and the development of advanced and anti-ship ballistic missiles that can target US naval forces in the region.
Though the US has stressed its desire to be neutral, it is conscious of China’s military build-up as also the need for freedom of navigation for all countries. It hence finds it imperative to raise its already formidable profile in the Asia- Pacific. Its numerous military bases in the region include 17 in Japan and 12 in South Korea, while it also has a presence in Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, Guam and Singapore.
Obama’s policy of ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific entails the relocation of 60 percent of the US’s naval assets – up from 50 percent today – to the region by 2020. The on-going disengagement of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq had raised speculation that the Pentagon might also diminish its role across Asia. But in his policy enunciation, Obama had affirmed; “As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia- Pacific a top priority; as a result, reductions in US defence spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.” His country’s move to downsize its defence budget by $487 billion over the next ten years will hence not come at the expense of ‘this critical region’.
According to the Pentagon, the drawdown in Afghanistan will release naval surface combatants, as well as naval intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and processing, exploitation, and dissemination capabilities, as also more Army and Marine Corps. EP-3 signals reconnaissance aircraft have already moved from CENTCOM (Central Command) to PACOM (Pacific Command). There will be a net increase of one aircraft carrier, seven destroyers, ten Littoral Combat Ships and two submarines in the Pacific in the coming years.
America’s military outpost of Guam, the island due south of Japan, is being readied as a strategic hub for the Western Pacific and Marines are being forward-stationed there. A full US Marine task force will also be established by 2016 in Australia, a key Asia-Pacific partner of the US. The US Air Force will shift unmanned and manned reconnaissance aircraft from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, apart from space, cyber and bomber forces.
The question remains whether this ‘rebalance’ is aimed towards containing China’s growing economic and military might, or at bolstering American presence in a region of the future. Beijing views Washington’s proposal as an attempt to curb Chinese influence across the region and to embolden countries to brazen out Beijing on the maritime disputes.
Is it time for the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation to return?
Despite country specific conflicts, the Asia-Pacific region has enjoyed general stability for almost 70 years since World War II. Such stability has led to the convergence of economic and commercial interests in the region. These have driven the creation of such regional groupings like the ten-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967, and the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, formed in 1989.
APEC is undoubtedly the premier forum for American economic engagement with the Asia-Pacific. The Association’s member economies range from the US, Russia, China and Canada to Australia, Japan, Chile and Peru and comprise a market of 2.7 billion consumers that accounts for 44 percent of world trade and 56 percent of global economic output. Six of the US’s ten largest trading partners are in APEC, namely, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Hong Kong. APEC economies purchased $895 billion, or 60 percent, worth of last year’s US merchandise exports.
While the Asia-Pacific has been driven by commercial interests, this widening unrest in the sea lanes that are the lifeline of this region is compelling the validity of a military front on the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Much in the manner in which China’s growing might is being perceived today, the 28-member grouping had been founded in 1949 in response to the threat posed by the then Soviet Union, with its prioritised purpose having been to deter Soviet expansionism.
To lay the foundations of overall peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, a NATO-like security structure would need to be inclusive, having China within its ambit. Though NATO had been engendered by the determination that only a truly trans- Atlantic security agreement could deter Soviet aggression, an Asia-Pacific defence platform could draw from the Treaty’s element of cooperation in military preparedness among the allied signatories. NATO had codified their interests by stipulating that ‘an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all’. It also empowered any of the allies under attack to take ‘such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force’.
The US’s concerted force multiplication in the region betrays an intent to forge some sort of a military front like NATO. A pointer to such an apparatus had been just-retired US Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s earlier statement; “There is no multilateral organisation like NATO in the region. And in the absence of an overarching security structure, the US military presence has played a pivotal role over those last past 60 years, providing nations with the space and the security necessary to make their own principled choices.”
Any such development may not happen soon, but it appears inevitable in light of the rising volatility in the region. A rudiment of a NATO-like platform, called South-East Asia Treaty Organisation, or SEATO, had been set up in 1954. It was, however, more a political, rather than a military, front against the spread of communism. And apart from the Philippines and Thailand, there was little South-East Asian about the rest of its membership that comprised the US, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Pakistan. SEATO had no military functions and ultimately pledged to strengthen the living standards in South-East Asia, sponsoring meetings and exhibitions on culture, religion and history, before members gradually withdrew and it was formally disbanded in 1977.
The similarities between now and at the time of NATO’s creation cannot be lost. True, the US and China have very high stakes in their relationship, unlike the state of Cold War that had driven Washington and Moscow between the end of World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
US goods and services trade with China between January and October 2013, totalled $458.5 billion (the US recording a trade deficit of $267 billion). China is also the largest foreign holder of US debt, owning over $1.2 trillion in bills, notes and bonds, according to the US Treasury. The Alliance for American Manufacturing besides indicates that the growing US trade deficit with China has cost more than 2.7 million American jobs between 2001, when China entered the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and 2011.
It was the US that had stewarded the coalescence of NATO. Indeed, the Organisation’s consolidated command structure, initially based in France and christened SHAPE – Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe – was first headed by US General Dwight D Eisenhower, with his appointment as the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe, or SACEUR. The Asia-Pacific front’s creation may possibly be spearheaded by Japan, the US or even China.
As more countries chase the world’s rapidly depleting resources, territorial disputes will become increasingly inevitable. Though India is not a member of either of the two key trade forums in the region – APEC and ASEAN – Washington is keen on having this Asian giant on board owing to its expansive demographic, economic and political profile in the region.
With a lot riding on its economic and security relations with both Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is averse to being partisan in the developments in the region. Many other Asian Governments would be similarly disinclined, but geopolitical compulsions can push countries into decisions they are not comfortable with.
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