As tension builds up between China and Japan over disputed islands in the seas separating the two countries, one wonders whether the pawns are being moved to checkmate China, the world’s number two economic power.
Though in dollar terms, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States is about 15 trillion dollars, many economists predict that China with its current GDP of 7.2 trillion dollars will overtake the US by 2030. Some even say this could happen by 2019.
With indicators forecasting doom for greed-driven liberal economies of the west, China’s discipline-driven controlled economy has a greater chance of surviving any catastrophe. In other words, China’s march towards the number one global power position is unstoppable.
But power is something that no country would like to lose. Every country seeks to increase its power which in turn ensures its security. The security perception of nations operates on the premise that if country A enhances its security by one degree, it causes insecurity to country B by one degree in a simple two-country model.
In a much more complex world, China’s rapid rise not only as an economic power but also as a military power has unsettled the United States, a country that has been at war with various other countries for the past century or so. Even at present, US troops are fighting an open-ended conflict, with the war shifting from region to region and theatre to theatre.
The US has won Europe’s submission by insisting that it should stick to the US-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for security and by quashing moves by some European nations to form a European military force under the command of the European Union. In the Middle East, with the exception of Syria and Iran, most countries are playing stooge to the United States. With Muammer Gaddafi’s cruel end at the hands of NATO-backed rebels, much of Africa has come under the military control of Africom, the United State’s military unit in charge of Africa. In South Asia, the US has found reliable allies in Afghanistan and India and a shaky-but under-control ally in Pakistan.
In East and South East Asia, the United States count many friendly nations with whom it has military alliances. But the rise of China has compelled the US to focus much of its attention on this region.
Early this year, President Barack Obama as commander-in-chief unveiled a defence strategic guidance that carried the heading “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense.” This document makes no attempt to hide the US intention to contain China.
The new defence guidance or a blueprint for the joint force of 2020 calls for, among other factors, a shift in geographical priorities toward the Asia Pacific region while retaining emphasis on the Middle East. It also calls for a shift toward advanced capabilities including Special Operations Forces, new technologies such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and unmanned systems, and cyberspace capabilities.
Indicating that the Asia-Pacific-focused military vision of the United States has already been set in motion, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta addressing the eleventh annual Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit in Singapore last month said his country would shift the bulk of its warships to the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years as part of a new military rebalancing to guarantee a strong and continued US presence in the region. He also said the US wanted to expand, tighten and integrate its military alliances with partners in the region. These partners include traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and the rebel region of Taiwan.
The United States has also intensified diplomatic and other measures to bring under its ‘partnership’ umbrella or win over hitherto neutral countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Chinaphobe, was in Laos this week in a landmark visit – the first by a US official in 57 years -- before she arrived in Cambodia for the ASEAN summit and the Asian Regional Forum conference.
Against this backdrop the current dispute between China and Japan over the disputed islands in the East China Sea assumes greater strategic significance.
On Wednesday, three Chinese vessels entered the waters claimed by Japan in a well-measured show of strength, setting off a confrontation with the Japanese coast guard. According to reports, the Japanese coast guard warned the Chinese craft not to come close to the islands which Japan considers its territory. In response an officer from a Chinese vessel cheekily remarked, "Our vessel is conducting official duties within China's territorial waters. Do not obstruct. Leave the Chinese waters immediately."
The war of words between the two Asian economic giants gathered heat when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda this week said his country wanted to buy the privately owned islands and solved the crisis once and for all. Japan says the islands are owned by a Japanese family which has in turn leased them out to the government.
“The holy territory of China is not for sale,” a Chinese government spokesman said referring to the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
But Japan said the islands were its inherent territory both from historical and legal perspectives and “in reality, Japan effectively controls them".
In 2010, a similar tense situation arose over these disputed islands which are rich in oil and gas and which come within the Exclusive Economic Zones claimed by the two countries.
Japan believes that China wants to carry out unilateral drilling for oil and gas in the area, in violation of a bilateral agreement that calls for joint exploitation.
The conflict in 2010 broke out when the Japanese coast guard arrested a Chinese fishing vessel after it collided with two Japanese patrol craft. A Japanese court detained the Chinese vessel and its captain.
These developments angered China and aroused nationalistic fervour to high pitch with the people staging anti-Japan protests. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman then said: “If Japan insists on making one mistake after another, the Chinese side will take strong countermeasures, and all the consequences should be borne by the Japanese side.”
Besides oil and natural gas, the islands are of security value to China as they overlook Okinawa, where the US maintains military bases.
Disputes such as this allow the US to fish in troubled waters. The US military strategy seems to be one of surrounding the enemy. The US has virtually encircled Iran while it is also seeking to penetrate Russia’s backyard. But in the case of China, the US has surrounded China from all sides by setting up new military bases, reinforcing existing ones and entering into defence partnership deals with countries in the region, especially those with whom Beijing has territorial disputes.
The US military presence in the region grows. So does China’s military power. More US ships in the region will give China all the necessary reasons to develop and improve counter measures. In other words, the US moves towards the militarisation of the region will only serve China.