August 24, 2014

US-China: Rising Tensions

Yohannan Chemarapally

RECENT months have witnessed a steady deterioration in relations between Washington and Beijing. The acceleration in the process started with the visit of President Barack Obama to Tokyo, where he re-emphasised his political support for Japan’s claim to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. The American president had also explicitly stated that if hostilities broke out between China and Japan, the US is bound by treaty to come to the defense 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 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security”, the American president had said during his visit to Japan in late April. The tiny, mostly uninhabited islands have been claimed by Japan since 1895. The Chinese have a longer historical claim to 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. The Chinese foreign ministry had issued a statement in response to the American president’s support of Japanese sovereignty over the islands. “The so called security alliance between the US 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 statement said. Washington 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 which 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. President Obama in a speech delivered on May 28 at West Point, the premier American military academy, had said that China and Russia were both threats to regional peace and security. “China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbours”, the American 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 America as the “indispensable nation”, the American president said that his country has the right to intervene unilaterally in third world countries. Obama was merely restating the “Bush doctrine” under which the US blatantly flouted international law and invaded countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration had “led from behind” in the invasion of Libya. China has been involved in a standoff with the Philippines and Vietnam in the month of May in the South and East China Seas. China had installed an oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea in early May, leading to protests from Vietnam. President Obama was quick to characterise the Chinese move as reckless and unwarranted. Street protests in Vietnam led to 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 has objected to the construction of a landing strip by the Chinese in the disputed Paracel islands. The Indian company, ONGC-Videsh has a contract with the Vietnamese government to prospect for oil in the disputed area that is also claimed by China. Indian officials have said that they will continue to prospect for oil and gas there, despite objections from Beijing. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was in Delhi in the second week of June for talks with his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj. He was in Delhi as the special envoy of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. Wang was the foreign minster to visit Delhi after the new NDA government took office. The Chinese side has reasons to be wary by some of the initial moves of the Modi government. The Tibetan prime minster in exile, Lobsang Sangay, was in the front row when Modi was sworn in as PM. The appointment of Kiren Rijiju, from Arunachal Pradesh, as the minister of state for home and VK Singh, the former army chief, as the minister in charge of the North East, has also sent wrong signals. Arunachal Pradesh is considered a disputed territory by China. Parts of Arunachal Pradesh are still claimed by China. Beijing 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”. TERRITORIAL DISPUTES 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 the US 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 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 America’s regional allies that the “rebalance to the East” is no longer a mere goal, but a reality. He listed out the moves the US has made in the region which included the shifting of troops, ships, planes and other military assets. The US, he said, has in recent months agreed to provide new missile defence systems to Japan, sophisticated drones and fighter aircraft to South Korea while expanding defence cooperation with Australia, New Zealand and India. Hagel said that the US will be placing 60 percent of its air and naval assets in the Asia-Pacific by 2020. The Philippines has once again agreed to allow military basing facilities for US troops. The Americans had to vacate their two military bases in the early nineties due to the opposition from the people. Manila and Washington have recently signed the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that gives the American forces virtually unrestricted rights to use Philippine territory. More than a thousand American marines are permanently based in Australia. The Obama administration is also supportive of the right wing Japanese Prime Minster, 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 in a speech that Japan “intends to play an even greater and proactive role” in Asian security affairs. He said that Japan fully supports 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. STRATEGIC GOAL OF THE US In his speech in Singapore, the American defence secretary did not leave much room for doubt about the country the US intends to target. Hagel warned that the US “will not look the other way” when nations try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards. The former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had said at an Asean 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 US 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 China’s declaration of an air defence zone over the areas it has claimed over the East China Sea. The area covers the disputed Senkaku islands. Hagel claimed that China’s territorial claim in the South China Sea was destabilising the region. The Pentagon chief also accused China of resorting to cyber spying against his country. Earlier in the month of May, Washington had specifically charged five Chinese army officers with hacking into American companies with the purpose of stealing business secrets. Beijing had reacted strongly to the accusations while countering with the charge that the US government has been involved in “unscrupulous cyber espionage” with China being one of its major targets. Edward Snowden’s revelations have proved that the US 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 US-China Cyber Working Group. A recent report by the Beijing based China Internet Media Research Centre has concluded that the US taking advantage of its “political, military, economic and technological hegemony to unscrupulously monitor other countries, including its allies”. The report noted that the US had gone “far beyond the legal rationale of ‘anti-terrorism’ and have exposed its ugly face of pursuing self interest in complete disregards of moral integrity”. Beijing was extremely upset with the Obama administration for circulating “wanted for cyber theft” posters with the pictures of the five PLA officers. Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) pointed out that the US had unilaterally declared air defence zones without consulting any other country or following international laws, when it suited its convenience. The PLA Deputy Chief of General, Wang Guanzhong, who was in Singapore for the conference said that the US defence secretary’s speech was designed to “stoke instability, to pick fights and incite disputes and conflicts”. He described the US 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 being adopted by Washington and its allies in the region. 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 the 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 the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, expedite the deal with Beijing.