China & the U.S.

Destabilising the East

Print edition : July 11, 2014

A Japanese surveillance plane flies over the disputed Senkaku/Diayou Islands, a 2011 photograph. Photo: AP

President Barack Obama arrivesat the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, on May 28 to deliver the commencement address. Obama said before his visit to Japan that if hostilities broke out between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, the U.S. was bound by treaty to come to the defence of its long-time ally. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He said teh U.S.' "rebalance to the East" was no longer a mere goal, but a reality. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

With its policy of “rebalance to the East”, the U.S. is trying to use the long-simmering territorial disputes between China and its neighbours to stoke up tension in the East Asian region.

RECENT MONTHS HAVE WITNESSED a steady deterioration in relations between the United States and China. The acceleration in the process started with the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Japan in late April, when he re-emphasised his support for Japan’s claim to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Obama stated explicitly that if hostilities broke out between China and Japan, the U.S. was bound by treaty to come to the defence of its long-time ally. “The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” he said ahead of his visit.

The tiny, mostly uninhabited islands have been claimed by Japan since 1895. The Chinese have a longer historical claim to the islands, which they call Diaoyu. They are also geographically much closer to the Chinese coast. The Chinese government has said that reclaiming the island is a “core national interest” for the country. In response to the U.S. President’s support of Japanese sovereignty over the islands, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement, which said: “The so-called security alliance between the U.S. and Japan is a bilateral arrangement made during the Cold War period, and it should not be used to damage China’s sovereignty and legitimate interests.”

The U.S. is trying to use the territorial disputes between China and its neighbours to stoke up tension in the East Asian region. Russia is the other nation that the Obama administration has targeted. Relations between Moscow and Washington were already going downhill before the Obama administration tried its hand at regime change in Ukraine earlier in the year. Obama, in a speech delivered on May 28 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said that China and Russia were both threats to regional peace and security.

“China’s economic rise and military reach worry its neighbours,” the U.S. President pronounced. He went on to accuse China of committing “regional aggression” that could “ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military”. Obama repeated the talk about “American exceptionalism”. Describing the U.S. as the “indispensable nation”, he said his country had the right to intervene unilaterally in third countries. Obama was merely restating the “Bush doctrine” under which the U.S. blatantly flouted international law and invaded countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration “led from behind” the invasion of Libya.

China and its neighbours

China has been involved in a stand-off with the Philippines and Vietnam since May in the South and East China Seas. China had installed an oil rig in the disputed waters in the South China Sea in early May, leading to protests from Vietnam. Obama was quick to characterise the Chinese move as reckless and unwarranted. Street protests in Vietnam led to the destruction of Chinese-owned companies and a few deaths. China had to send in naval ships to evacuate its nationals working in Vietnam. The Philippines too witnessed scattered anti-China protests. The Philippines objected to the construction of a landing strip by the Chinese in the disputed Paracel Islands. The Indian company ONGC-Videsh Limited has a contract with the Vietnamese government to prospect for oil in the disputed area.

Indian officials have said that they will continue to prospect for oil and gas there despite objections from Beijing. As the special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in New Delhi in the second week of June for talks with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj. Wang was the first Foreign Minister to visit Delhi after the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took office. The Chinese side has reasons to be wary of some of the initial moves of the Narendra Modi government. Tibetan Prime Minister in exile Lobsang Sangay was in the front row when Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister. The appointment of Kiren Rijiju from Arunachal Pradesh as the Minister of State for Home Affairs and former Army chief V.K. Singh as the Minister of State with Development of North-Eastern Region (independent charge) has also sent the wrong signals. Arunachal Pradesh is considered a disputed territory by China. Parts of Arunachal Pradesh are still claimed by China. China is also unhappy that the first important foreign visit to be undertaken by Modi is to Japan. The Indian side has described the talks between the two Foreign Ministers as “a productive beginning”.

Simmering for years

The territorial disputes involving China and its neighbours have been simmering for years. It has only come to a boil as the Obama administration starts its much-heralded “rebalance to the East”. The purpose of the “rebalance” is obviously to militarily encircle China. The aggressive policies that the Obama administration wants to implement against China were spelt out with more clarity by U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel at a security conference in Singapore in the last week of May. In attendance were many of the Defence Ministers and security officials from the countries in the region, including China. Hagel echoed Obama’s grandiose statement at West Point. Obama had stated that “America must lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one will.”

The Defence Secretary assured his country’s regional allies that the “rebalance to the East” was no longer a mere goal, but a reality. He listed out the moves the U.S. had made in the region, which included the shifting of troops, ships, planes and other military assets. The U.S., he said, had in recent months agreed to provide new missile defence systems to Japan and sophisticated drones and fighter aircraft to South Korea while expanding defence cooperation with Australia, New Zealand and India. Hagel said that the U.S. would be placing 60 per cent of its air and naval assets in the Asia-Pacific by 2020.

The Philippines has once again agreed to allow military basing facilities for U.S. troops. The U.S. had to vacate two of its military bases in the early 1990s owing to opposition from the people. Manila and Washington have recently signed the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which gives the U.S. forces virtually unrestricted rights to use Philippine territory. More than a thousand U.S. marines are permanently based in Australia. The Obama administration is also supportive of the right-wing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to dump the country’s pacifist Constitution and replace it with a militaristic one.

Abe, who was the keynote speaker at the Singapore conference, declared that Japan “intends to play an even greater and proactive role” in Asian security affairs. He said that Japan fully supported Vietnam and the Philippines in their territorial dispute with China. Japan has given the Philippines patrol boats and has offered military assistance to Vietnam and other countries having disputes with China.

Hagel did not leave much room for doubt about the country the U.S. intends to target. He warned that the U.S. “will not look the other way” when nations try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said at an ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) summit in 2010 that Washington had a “national interest” in ensuring the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The strategic goal of the U.S. is to exert control over the sea lanes in South-East Asia through which much of China’s imports of raw materials and energy are shipped. A “military pivot” to the East by itself implies a threat of war and an open challenge to China’s legitimate interests in the region. Washington and Tokyo had reacted adversely to Beijing’s declaration of an air defence zone over the areas it has claimed over the East China Sea. The area covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Hagel claimed that China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea was destabilising the region.

Cyber spying

The Pentagon chief also accused China of resorting to cyberspying against his country. Earlier in May, Washington specifically charged five Chinese army officers with hacking into U.S. companies with the purpose of stealing business secrets. Beijing reacted strongly to the accusations while countering them with the charge that the U.S. government had been involved in “unscrupulous cyberespionage” with China as a major target. Edward Snowden’s revelations have proved that the U.S. has been conducting espionage and cyber hacking on a global scale, with China being specially earmarked. After Hagel’s remarks in Singapore, China has suspended participation in a U.S.-China Cyber Working Group.

A recent report by the Beijing-based China Internet Media Research Centre concluded that the U.S. was taking advantage of its “political, military, economic and technological hegemony to unscrupulously monitor other countries, including its allies”. The report noted that the U.S. had gone “far beyond the legal rationale of ‘anti-terrorism’ and has exposed its ugly face of pursuing self-interest in complete disregard of moral integrity”. Beijing was extremely upset with the Obama administration for circulating “wanted for cyber theft” posters with the pictures of the five People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers.

Major General Yao Yunzhu of the PLA pointed out that the U.S. had unilaterally declared air defence zones without consulting any other country or following international laws when it suited its convenience. The PLA’s Deputy Chief of General Wang Guanzhong, who was in Singapore for the conference, said that the U.S. Defence Secretary’s speech was designed to “stoke instability, to pick fights and incite disputes and conflicts”. He described the U.S.’ approach to the region as “hegemonic” and “completely non-constructive”. The senior Chinese military commander also sarcastically remarked that Hagel and Abe were “singing a duet” in Singapore.

China is also making its moves to counter the belligerent attitude adopted by the U.S. and its allies. Because of the simultaneous pressure the Obama administration is putting on China and Russia, the two countries, besides putting up a united front on key foreign policy issues, are cooperating more closely on military and economic affairs. The mega $400-billion contract inked between Moscow and Beijing in May for the supply of Russian gas has shaken the West. Russia now need not fear any impact of Western sanctions on its economy. Russia will have an assured market for its gas and China will not have to be dependent on sea routes for the delivery of energy supplies. It was the crisis in Ukraine and the threat of more economic sanctions that made Russian President Vladimir Putin expedite the deal with China.

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