By Alexander Doan.
The Huffington Post recently uploaded a video of Donald Trump saying “China” 234 times, spanning a total of three minutes. While the presidential candidate and business magnate’s position toward the country seems obsessive and out of touch with reality, America faces a real geopolitical challenge in East Asia as China flexes its military muscle. In 2012, China launched its first aircraft carrier,the Liaoning, capable of fielding its advanced J-15 fighter, and quickly made its territorial ambitions known. The last few years have seen an escalation in aggression, especially regarding island disputes.
The fiercest territorial battle has been waged between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a group of small rocky outcroppings in the East China Sea. The protracted dispute has led to protests in both countries, where diplomatic and common frustration over the territorial spat has reignited tensions that date back to the Second World War. From the air, the patch of islands seems insignificant; however, it has much more significance due to international law. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established that coastal countries have an “Exclusive Economic Zone,” ranging 200 nautical miles from the end of their coastline, in which the country has special rights regarding marine resources, including petroleum drilling and fishing. With the possibility that the area around the Senkaku Islands contains much hydrocarbon and other aquatic resources, the uninhabited rocks take on a new economic significance. However, even if it was not for UNCLOS, the Senkaku Islands dispute represents the revival of a powerful nationalistic force in China, as the country moves from the international backburner to the forefront of the world stage.
China’s spat with its historical rival is not the only recent development in the South China Sea. In the past few years, China has escalated tensions with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia over the Spratly Islands, which lay south of the Senkakus. While economic considerations play a factor in China’s claim, the Spratly Island dispute also could be a harbinger of Chinese military ambitions. The country has built airstrips and artillery stations in the area, indicating that China wishes to project its hard power into the region. While a full-scale conflict is unlikely, the mere presence of Chinese warships, planes, and military forces could be enough to intimidate smaller nations into giving up their territorial claims.
If China’s strategy is to intimidate its neighbors, its stance has had mixed success. China’s quasi-monopoly on rare earth elements (REEs), important metals in the production of electronics, brings with it a great deal of influence, especially for Asian nations concerned with the production of consumer goods. In 2010, Japan jailed a Chinese fisherman for entering the waters around the Senkaku Islands, beginning a diplomatic row that escalated with China blocking the export of REEs to Japan. Eventually, Japan acquiesced to China’s demands, proof that its influence over vital metals was enough to sway Japan towards negotiation. On the other hand, the Philippines has been more adamant in its stance against China. Instead of submitting to Chinese demands, it has filed complaints with the United Nations over China’s aggression. Although China refused to entertain the United Nation’s ruling, this action sent a powerful message to Chinese leaders. Even in the wake of a large military buildup, it seems that small countries are gambling that China will not start a war over mere islands, and it seems their gamble will prove to be correct.
A conflict in the East Asian region is the last thing China wants. With its leaders focused on growth, even a relatively minor military dispute could distract the nation, drawing away precious resources from an economy, which was promised to grow at around 7% for the foreseeable future. Even this rate, which would be desirable in most Western economies, reflects a decline from decades of double-digit growth, and further economic sluggishness could be politically troubling for the Communist Party. Any conflict in the region would restrict the flow of trade, especially manufactured goods, putting a dent in China’s economy; hurt its relations with its neighbors; and could possibly lead to sanctions by the United States, Japan, or South Korea, all important economic partners of China. In addition, it would betray China’s promise to stabilize the region and undercut current projects China has with its neighbors to promote economic growth and peace, such as China’s current foray into a gas pipeline with Russia, funded with Chinese Renminbi instead of US dollars. Continued aggression would make China seem like a power-hungry and unstable partner and could cause a shift away from Beijing to Washington. Already, Vietnam has taken a historic step by sending the general secretary of its communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, to Washington to discuss defense issues, and the Philippines has signed new military pacts with the United States. With Japan and South Korea firmly in America’s influence, China could barely afford to lose allies to Washington.
Ultimately, the Chinese Island disputes seem to be mere posturing in an attempt to promote a new brand of nationalism. For the United States, there should be little concern. Although China’s aggression is vilified in America, the two nations are still economically interconnected. The best solution for now seems to be to simply do nothing, and allow China to sort out its disputes with its neighbors. This has two benefits for the United States. First, intervention could spook Chinese leaders. Second, it will allow the United States to strengthen relations with other nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and possibly pursue further military and economic ties. Donald Trump may be right to call our attention to China, but the world should see the awakening dragon as a peaceful entity dedicated to progress, not warfare.