pivots toward trouble in West
Pacific By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - The dispute over the
territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands
(called Senkaku Islands in Japan) in the East
China Sea continues to escalate. There is not the
slightest sign that either side wants to back off
Now more and more people in China
are beginning to question the role of the United
States in this territorial dispute with Japan.
Washington repeatedly says it takes no side in it.
But it has adopted Senkaku as its official name
for the disputed islands and proclaimed that the
US-Japan Security Treaty applies to them. And
recently, the US and Japan held joint military
drills focusing on seizing islands, suggesting
that "the United States intends to put pressure on
China", commented Rear Admiral Zhang
Zhaozhong, of China's
National Defense University.
perspective, it may not be coincidental that its
long-standing but dormant territorial disputes
with Japan and other neighboring countries in the
South China Sea suddenly intensified after
Washington announced its "return to Asia"
strategic shift. This further raises the suspicion
that the US move is aimed at containing China's
The administration of US President
Barack Obama first announced its "return-to-Asia"
strategic shift in 2009 at the ASEAN Regional
Forum in Singapore. On that occasion, US Secretary
of State Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed that after
being distracted for a decade in the Middle East,
Washington planned to re-pivot toward Asia.
Afterward, Washington announced that American
soldiers would be pulled out of Afghanistan and
Iraq by 2014, and more military facilities and
personnel would be deployed in the Asia-Pacific
In May of this year, Obama
announced a plan to cut American troops in Europe
and increase the US military presence in the
Asia-Pacific region, in accordance with the new
"Asia pivot" strategy. For instance, about US$12
billion would be spent to upgrade the military
base in Guam, thousands of soldiers and advanced
military facilities would be based in Darwin,
Australia, and six aircraft carriers would be
deployed in the Pacific Ocean, despite the fact
that the US would reduce its total number of
aircraft carriers from 12 to 11.
Implementing the new strategy, the US has
also largely enhanced military ties and
cooperation with its allies in Asia, especially
Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, through
reaffirming their shared defense responsibilities,
carrying out joint military exercises and selling
more advanced weapons to them.
Asia-pivot strategy also put a stamp on the
US-dominated regional free-trade area - the
Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership
Agreement (TPP), which originated from the FTA of
the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) - in which China, as
Asia's biggest economy, is excluded.
with America's upgraded and more ambitious
engagement in Asia and the Pacific that China
appears to be starting to face more external
challenges in this region.
year, China and the Philippines have been locked
in a territorial dispute over Huanyan Island
(Scarborough Shoal) in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, disputes over some other waters and
islands in that sea between Vietnam and China have
also soured relations between the two socialist
countries. And this year, the Diaoyu issue has
become a regional focus.
behind all the conflicts associated with China and
its neighbors in recent years, there is the big
shadow of the US, which seems to have suspiciously
poured fuel on the flames.
amid the bilateral territorial disputes between
China and the Philippines and Vietnam, the US,
appearing as a "mediator", has always intervened
just in time to make the situation more
complicated. It has virtually encouraged the
Philippines and Vietnam to challenge China's "red
line" continuously by strengthening its
relationship with these two countries. The US has
reinforced its mutual defense treaty with the
Philippines, providing advanced patrol ships to
that country and carrying out joint naval
exercises with it, as well as deepening military
links with Vietnam.
And now, as the
China-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu Islands
escalates, the US is openly lending its support to
Japan by proclaiming that the US-Japan Security
Treaty covers the Senkakus.
With the sole
superpower in the world actually taking sides,
territorial disputes in the South China and East
China seas have quickly escalated into serious
conflicts between Beijing and its concerned
neighbors. Manila's politicians landed on a
disputed island and renamed it. Vietnamese
nationalists launched street demonstrations
against China. Reportedly Vietnam conducted 106
invasions of China-claimed waters and islands last
year to provoke Beijing. And now, Tokyo has
"nationalized" the Diaoyu Islands to change the
status quo unilaterally, which Beijing sees as a
deliberate provocation, because the two countries
agreed to shelve the dispute over the Diaoyus and
keep the status quo when they normalized their
diplomatic ties 40 years ago.
China has always maintained that the status quo
should be kept and disputes shelved in the South
China Sea. But the US, out of its own interests,
seems to encourage the other parties to change the
status quo, forcing China into tit-for-tat
It thus may not be too
far-fetched to say that the East and South China
seas might have remained calm without the US
"mediation" to implement its Asia-pivot strategy.
If Washington really wanted to play the
honest broker in these conflicts, why would it
want to sell advanced weapons to Manila and
strengthen military relations with Hanoi and Tokyo
in the first place? Why would it always reprimand
China when such conflicts occur? If Washington can
justify its support of these countries as meant to
help the so-called weak against the strong, what
would it think if China supported Iran or North
Korea when they ran into conflict with the United
The fact is that before the US
began to carry out it "return-to-Asia" strategy,
stability between China and its neighbors in East
and Southeast Asia had generally been maintained,
and regional integration seemed under way through
Beijing's dialogues with the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations and the China-Japan-South
Korea strategic talks. Disputes on sovereignty
over waters or islands had basically been put
aside or overshadowed by economic cooperation.
Nevertheless, while China and its Asian
neighbors have become increasingly interdependent
economically and benefit from one another, most of
these countries don't trust China in regard to
security matters, especially with its fast rise.
There is a gap between China's economic relations
and its political relations with its neighbors.
Therefore, the US has moved to take advantage of
this gap, trying to enlarge it through its
partiality tactics and proxy policy. That is, by
its return to Asia, the US is not helping to
narrow the gap but is broadening it instead,
making more trouble in the West Pacific.
careful review of China's positions and claims on
islands and waters in the South and East China
seas will show that Beijing has not changed its
stance for decades. It is not new. It should also
be noted that similar positions and claims are
also held by Taiwan, a democratic island
politically separated from mainland China. What
does this mean? It means Beijing's positions over
territorial disputes have nothing to do with its
rise, its political system or its internal
politics. The challenge is from the outside - its
neighbors, with the backing of the US.
the price of Washington's "return to Asia" is
taking an antagonistic policy toward China and
damaging China's core interests, this will in
return undermine America's national interests. Cui
Tiankai, China's vice-minister of foreign affairs,
recently said in Hong Kong that "China is an Asian
country by the Pacific. Both Asia and the Pacific
are our family and our root." This indicates that
China cannot retreat from any threats and
challenges to its interests in this region. If the
US doesn't seriously care about China's concerns
and interests here, its new Asia-pivot policy will
destabilize the Asia-Pacific region and ultimately
damage all countries' interests.
demonize China at the global level by its
discourse of superiority and hegemony, and then to
challenge China's core interests in the Pacific,
could be seen as an emotional response to China's
rise. But as a great and powerful Pacific state,
the US should rationally manage this region's
potential conflicts, especially those with China -
another powerful Pacific country - and cooperate
with all other concerned countries.
Whether Washington's return-to-Asia
strategy will make the US a troublemaker or a
responsible actor in Asia is to a great extent
dependent on its approach to China - to respect
China's achievement or see it with jealousy.
Dr Jian Junbo is an assistant
professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai.
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