On two occasions in my life I found myself living close to the South China Sea. The sea became my escape from life’s pressing responsibilities. But there is no escaping the fact that the deceptively serene waters are now also grounds for a nascent but real new cold war.
China takes the name of the sea very seriously. Its claim over the relatively massive water body – laden with oil, natural gas and other resources – is perhaps ‘ill-defined’, per the account of the BBC (Nov 3, 2011), but it is also very serious. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are uneasy but are caught in a bind. China’s growing regional influence – to some, perhaps ‘encroaching hegemony’ – is an uncontested fact of life. To challenge - or balance - the rising Chinese power, these countries face a most difficult choice: accepting China’s supremacy or embracing an intractable American return to the region. The latter option is particularly worrisome considering the US’s poor military track record throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
Frankly, there is little choice in the matter for small, vulnerable countries. A conflict is already brewing, and China, emboldened by astonishing economic growth as well as military advancement, seems to be gearing up to challenge the US’s uncontested military dominance in the region.
Despite efforts to slash the defense budget by $487 billion in the next ten years, the US sees the Asia-Pacific region as its last major holdout outside NATO’s traditional geographic influence. In fact, last January the Defense Department had announced its plans to remove two of four US combat brigades stationed in Europe. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried to assure US NATO allies that the US remained committed to Europe’s security, and that the move was merely part of a new strategy of ‘smart defense’. But the writing on the wall was crystal clear.
“If we look behind the slogan of smart defense, I would say that at least 20 years ago all these ideas were on the table,” according to Thomas Enders, CEO of Airbus. “So why is this time different? It could be austerity. But...the NATO members, particularly the Europeans will not spend more on defense for the foreseeable future, say 10 years” (Reuters, Feb 4).
Teetering at the brink of economic depression and bankruptcy, and forced into making unprecedented austerity decisions, the US and its NATO allies have already crossed all sorts of uncharted territories. Panetta’s assurances will hardly erase the comments made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates last June foretelling a “dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.” However, it is very telling that despite budget cuts and the downgrading of US military presence in Europe, the US will be shifting its focus to the Asia-Pacific. This was the gist of President Obama’s announcement of new military strategy last month.
In his recent remarks before the Senate Armed Service Committee, Panetta said the US planned to keep a rotational military presence in Australia and the Philippines. However, due to China’s growing economic might and direct sway over US’s own economy, US officials are less daring when explaining their renewed interests the region.
The fear of China’s dominance is at the center of US foreign policy of the Asia-Pacific region. It is a fight that China cannot lose. For a declining empire like the US, the fight is also central to American strategy aimed at maintaining a level of global hegemony - especially where the US still claims few allies. On his last Asian tour last month, Panetta was emphatic that the US return to Asia was not a temporary political maneuver. “I want to make very clear that the United States is going to remain a presence in the Pacific for a long time...If anything, we're going to strengthen our presence in the Pacific,” he said. This message had been asserted earlier, although in different contexts, by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and President Obama himself.
A direct confrontation remains unlikely because of the economic interests shared by both China and the US. That said, the symbiotic relationship is now becoming increasingly imbalanced in favor of China. In his recent visit to the US, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping told business leaders that the US should not push China too far in the Asia-Pacific region. “We hope the US will truly respect the interests and concerns of countries in the region, including China,” he said (USA Today, Feb 15). Compared to other visits by top Chinese leaders, Xi received less reprimand, an indication of a shift in US diplomacy regarding China.
However, it’s worth noting that official US statements regarding the Asia-Pacific region – often made by departments of state, commerce and trade - are becoming increasingly fused with statements made by military leaders, a sign of creeping danger.
The South China Sea is, in particular, a contentious issue. The US is obviously interested in the resource-rich body for economic and strategic reasons. For China, it is additionally a matter of national pride. The Chinese message to Western and other companies is to stay away from areas that China sees as its territorial waters. “We hope foreign companies do not get involved in disputed waters for oil and gas exploration and development,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.
The race for supremacy over Asia is being renewed, this time with China more forceful than ever. The South China Sea is likely to emerge as major point of contention in coming years. Leaders of adjacent countries might find themselves being forced to choose sides in a foreseeable conflict over resources and military presence.
It was Deng Xiaoping who championed China’s economic reforms throughout the 1980s. Then China was seen too amiable – if not disaster-prone - to ever articulate and defend a clear foreign policy agenda. Those days are over, and the US has taken serious note of that.
“There are challenges facing the Asia-Pacific right now that demand America's leadership (and the 21st century will be) America's Pacific century,” declared Hilary Clinton prior to the APEC summit in Hawaii last November (Xinhua, Nov 19).
Understandably, her comments raised the alarm throughout Chinese media that a cold war is officially underway. While the giants are now contending in the open, smaller and less influential countries in the region are being exposed to all sorts of bleak possibilities.