As we get ready to say goodbye to 2015 and welcome 2016, we can only heave a sigh of relief that we have been saved from World War III. Among the many negatives that shaped the passing year, the resolve of the big powers, in this case the United States and China, to exercise restraint and begin talks to sort out burning issues stands out as a rare positive and gives a glimmer of hope for a shaky peace. We say shaky peace, because the problems that have given rise to a cold war like situation between the United States and China still remain unresolved with both countries resorting to provocations.
Take for instance the December 10 incident. The United States, in yet another calculated move to test China’s resolve to respond, flew a B-52 bomber over a South China Sea islet which Beijing claims belongs to it. The move prompted China to put its military on high alert and issue a stern warning to the US. The incident came two months after a US warship sailed close to a reef, over which China claims sovereignty and seven months after US surveillance aircraft were spotted in the skies over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Washington and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region refuse to recognise China’s claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea. They charge that China is filling reefs with sand and constructing artificial islands to claim territorial rights over the 12 mile sea stretch and economic rights over the 200 mile stretch in terms of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. They also accuse China of only adhering to a few ‘favourable’ provisions of the treaty while showing scant regard for other provisions, especially the sections that spell out ways of dividing the sea and dispute resolution.
Recently, the Philippines, which is contesting China’s claim to the Spratly islands, filed a case in the International Court of Arbitration against Beijing, asking the tribunal to recognise its right to exploit waters in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ case was based on the Law of the Sea Convention. The Spratly Islands are a disputed group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Vietnam. China claims sovereignty over a large area known as the “nine-dash lane” which stretches south and east of mainland China and covers hundreds of disputed islands and reefs. But the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Indonesia and other countries have refused to recognise China’s claim, saying the nine-dash lane was only a post-World War II creation.
In a ruling seen as a blow to China, the court said last month that it would hear the case, which, analysts say, could bolster territorial claims by other countries against China in the resource-rich body of water.
China is part of the court system and is expected to abide by its rulings, though the court, set up in 1899 as one of the first international judicial institutions, has no powers of enforcement, and its rulings have been ignored before. As expected, China boycotted the proceedings and rejected the court’s authority in the case.
But the main issue is not the dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea or the crisis between China and Japan over an island which is known in China as Diaoyu and in Japan as Senkaku. It is about China’s rise as a global power. China is the world’s number two economic power and is expected to overtake the United States and rise to the number one position in the next few years. Worried that its global dominance will be undermined by China’s rise, the United States is on a major defence-buildup drive in the Asia Pacific region, under a policy called ‘the Pivot to Asia’, and has been taking calculated measures to check China. The United States has enhanced its military presence in the region in such a way that China feels it is being encircled by US bases in countries in China’s neighbourhood.
China’s response to the United States’ Pivot to Asia came in a Defence White Paper it released in May this year. The policy paper warned: “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” In a message that was as lucid as it was stern, the policy paper said China’s new military strategy -- which it describes as its ‘maritime security struggle’ -- is designed to confront new security challenges, including the United States’ defence buildup in the region, Japan’s decision to overhaul its defence policy and “provocative actions” in the South China Sea by neighbouring countries.
This week, the relations between the two major powers took a further plunge when the United States ignored China’s warning and went on to sell sophisticated weapons and aircraft to Taiwan – a move Beijing says undermines its efforts to unify with the breakaway region. In a tough message, China lambasted the move as the US military’s assault on “China’s sovereignty” in Taiwan.
China’s semi-official newspaper China Daily reported on Tuesday that Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State John Kerry that Washington must respect Beijing’s “core interests and major concerns.”
Yet there is the proverbial silver lining to the war clouds: Washington and Beijing are holding regular dialogues. In addition, Beijing is also moving to normalise relations with Southeast Asian nations with whom it has territorial disputes. This is because President Xi Jinping is determined to bring to fruition his multi-billion dollar dream project – the One-Belt-One-Road project, part of which is the Maritime Silk Route that links up with Sri Lanka. China believes that the project which is to be completed within a few years would revolutionise world trade and eliminate power rivalries.
But it is easier said than done. The US sees the move as China’s bid to dominate the world. To counter the OBOR project, the US recently launched a somewhat half-baked Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. Launching the TPP in October, US President Barack Obama said, “We can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.” Between the lines is the US determination not to let China become the world’s number one power. We will see more of this in 2016.