china tests american resolve more trouble in the south china sea

The Economist asked, “What would America fight for?” as it warned the Obama administration against strategic withdrawal and neo-isolationism. It said that President Obama’s foreign policy was just a theory that gave him an excuse to do nothing. It said that Obama’s foreign policy was based on a visceral dislike of confrontation and a dislike of strategic gambles. It warned Washington about growing doubts among allies, many of whom depend on the American security umbrella. This “risks making the world a more dangerous and nasty place,” it said, because strategic rivals like Russia and China are “eager to dominate their neighbours.”

Well, U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Asia (April 23–29) was, at its core, a “reassurance” move to calm the nerves of allies and show that Washington is still committed to being an anchor of stability in Asia. And it was partly successful in many ways.

After all, the trip gave Obama a chance to make it clear that Washington would come to Tokyo’s aid if there was a fight over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. And he couldn’t have been more calm. When you look more closely, you can see that Obama’s clear statement of military solidarity with Japan had important diplomatic consequences. On the surface, it seems like Japan and China are “sleepwalking” into the worst nightmare for Asia, a war, over a bunch of rocks and (potential) hydrocarbon resources that are deep underground. In reality, though, Obama has made it easier for Japan to negotiate with China, which has cut down on its naval incursions into Japan’s territorial waters, probably out of fear that things will get out of hand.

With full military support from the United States, Abe has more diplomatic power and can better work with China to find a long-term solution to their territorial disputes. In exchange, the Abe administration has promised to (a) tone down its ultra-nationalist rhetoric, which has angered many of Japan’s neighbours across Asia, and (b) start a long-term diplomatic effort with South Korea to settle territorial and historical disputes.

Obama was able to make a very symbolic “comprehensive [strategic] partnership” deal in Malaysia, which makes it easier for a key Southeast Asian “swing state” to break away from China’s influence. After all, Malaysia is starting to feel the heat in the South China Sea as it increases diplomatic coordination with other claimant states like Vietnam and the Philippines and more actively diversifies its external strategic relations. Most importantly, Obama’s trip to Manila happened at the same time that a new security agreement, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), was signed. This agreement gives U.S. forces easy, cheap access to Philippine bases.

In exchange, the U.S. is expected to give the Philippines more military help, which will strengthen military cooperation between the two countries and make it easier for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to deal with both traditional and non-traditional security problems. Obama can use the deal to strengthen the United States’ strategic position in Asia, which is a hedge against a rising China. But he didn’t give the Philippines a clear promise of military help over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. So, China has more room to move in the South China Sea, even as it flirts with a diplomatic relationship with Japan, which is getting stronger and more independent.

China Strikes Back

China has cut the number of coast guard and paramilitary patrols to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by a lot since October. It also sent Hu Deping, a close friend of President Xi Jinping and the son of the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang, to Tokyo as an unofficial Chinese envoy. There, he is said to have met with high-ranking Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

When Shinzo Abe went to the Yasukuni Shrine in December, where some Class-A war criminals are buried, the streets of Beijing were mostly quiet. This is a big change from 2012, when anti-Japanese protests happened all over China. This led to a big drop in bilateral relations and economic ties, which forced a moderate government in Tokyo, led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), to get tougher.

In short, there are strong signs that China is ready to deal with the crisis in the East China Sea in a more positive way. Balance of power issues have clearly played a big role in Japan’s decision to build up its military and loosen its own restrictions on arms exports.

But things are different in the South China Sea. Right after Obama’s trip to Asia, the Philippines, in part because of the EDCA, seized a Chinese boat that they say was illegally catching a lot of endangered species near Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands. China immediately asked for the fishermen to be set free, but nothing happened. But the Paracel chain of islands in the north of the South China Sea became the scene of the most exciting events.

China sent HYSY981, a $1 billion deep-water oil drilling rig, to Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which has a lot of oil and gas. It went there with a fleet of Chinese paramilitary ships. Soon after that, Vietnam said that China was shooting at its naval ships. This was caught on video and shown at a press conference in front of international media. Vietnam has sent up to 30 ships to the area and promised to fight China for its territorial rights.

This was a clear act of provocation, and people in Vietnam feel very betrayed by the United States. Vietnam is not a treaty ally of the U.S. like the Philippines or Japan, and Obama has not been there yet. Vietnam has tried for years to play a low-key diplomatic game to make it easier for bilateral maritime talks with China. Vietnam, like the Philippines, hasn’t filed a case against China’s “nine-dash-line” doctrine, which gives China “inherent” and “unarguable” control over almost the whole South China Sea. Vietnam didn’t openly back the Philippines’ legal efforts against China because it didn’t want to upset China. Vietnam tried to have a good relationship with China by being calm and friendly.

In this way, the recent actions against Vietnam had nothing to do with it.

How the U.S. Replied

From a strategic point of view, however, China took advantage of the fact that Vietnam has no permanent treaty alliance with a regional or international power. Instead, Vietnam relies on a flexible network of strategic partnerships with countries like Russia, India, Japan, and the U.S.

China seems to have decided that making a crisis in South China is good for domestic politics because people are angry about Washington’s growing strategic presence in Asia and the Uighur insurgency in the Chinese province of Xinjiang is getting worse.

“From Tokyo to Manila, Obama has been careful about what he says so as not to upset Beijing. But from the joint statement between the US and Japan to the new defence agreement between the US and the Philippines, it’s becoming more and more clear that Washington sees Beijing as an enemy, said China Daily, a leading state-run newspaper in mainland China that is known for using more measured, professional language when talking about international issues that are controversial.

Not surprisingly, Washington’s response to China’s recent moves in the South China Sea has been to use very tough diplomatic language and put the blame squarely on China. It also held a very public joint military exercise in the Philippines, where 5,500 American and Filipino troops pretended to attack an island in the South China Sea. It was a thinly veiled response to China’s growing power in the area.

Still, there is a clear imbalance of power between China and other Southeast Asian claimant states, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. Without a more decisive American military mobilisation, it is hard to see China backing down from its position. By not giving the Philippines clear military support over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, Beijing has been tempted to see how far the Obama administration will go to help its regional allies.

Hugh White, a leading Australian strategist, says that China can take advantage of a lack of leadership in the region if the Obama administration doesn’t show that it is willing to use “all the elements of American power” to stop China from upsetting the status quo in the region, which is based on US leadership in Asia. White says that the U.S.’s Pivot to Asia ran into trouble because “almost as soon as it was announced, Beijing set out to test it on the Scarborough Shoal.” The Scarborough Shoal is a part of the South China Sea that is in the EEZ of the Philippines but was taken by Chinese forces after a short naval standoff in the middle of 2012. In short, the U.S. has to decide if it wants to increase military tensions with China or if it is willing to share leadership in East Asia.

Overall, Obama’s recent trip to Asia gave the pivot policy a much-needed boost. However, recent events suggest that China is willing to push the limits in the South China Sea to hurt the credibility of the U.S. and make it look like it doesn’t have what it takes to be the undisputed leader in East Asia. More and more, Washington will have to either increase its military commitments to countries like the Philippines or accept the rise of China by preparing for a new, bipolar security structure in the region. South China Sea claimants with less power obviously want Washington to choose the first option.

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