When the political history of the 21st century is written, it might well trace the tipping point towards war in Asia to our present decade.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted recently that war in Asia is “not impossible” in the next 20 years if escalating regional tensions are not managed responsibly.
Also, the Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is on record as saying the risk of war in Asia will increase over the next 10 years as the US military’s technological edge over China erodes.
Signs indicative of looming conflict are deepening distrust, vitriolic nationalistic exchanges, veiled threats and provocations.
Let’s look at what has happened just recently.
At last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel publicly scolded China for undertaking “destabilising unilateral actions”, and warned that “the United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged”. He also supported Japan’s greater role in the security of the region.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has drawn a parallel between Russia’s invasion of Crimea and China’s muscle-flexing in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
China responded in kind. Referring to Mr Hagel’s remarks, its Deputy Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General Wang Guan-zhong, said “this speech is full of hegemony, full of incitements, threats and intimidation”.
China’s actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea have certainly raised tensions.
But the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is being violated by all claimants. The Philippines and Vietnam allege that China has acted contrary to the provision that the parties concerned should resolve their disputes by “peaceful means” and “friendly consultations”.
China responds that the Philippines has violated a hard-won provision in the Declaration which stipulates disputes should be resolved between “sovereign states directly concerned”, and that Vietnam might be on the verge of doing so as well.
China views the actions by Vietnam and particularly the Philippines, a US ally, as provocations encouraged by Washington.
China also sees Mr Hagel’s remarks as insulting and hypocritical. This is especially so in view of Washington’s almost daily drone and cyber strikes into sovereign states and its recent history of intervention in other countries.
Mr Hagel’s speech included a warning that the US would “not tolerate any attempt to alter the status quo by force or coercion”. This was assumed to refer to China’s aggressive actions in relation to the Japan-China Senka-ku-Diaoyu dispute in the East China Sea.
But such statements completely ignore China’s view that Japan is the party refusing to acknowledge there is a dispute over the sovereignty of the islands.
Further, China sees Japan as being responsible for altering the status quo there. Japan arrested a Chinese ship’s captain in September 2010, “nationalised” three of the islands in September 2012 and, in October last year, threatened to shoot down China’s drones over the disputed area.
Worse, China believes that the US “pivot” encourages Japan to be more aggressive.
Concepts such as “status quo” and “international order” are in the eyes of the beholder. To Washington, these terms appear to refer to a situation in which the United States is the dominant actor and patron.
China certainly assumes this is what the US means. The implication is that the US does not and will not recognise China’s enhanced status or respect its “core interests”.
The reality, however, is that the status quo in the region is changing, and all involved are being somewhat disingenuous about what they are doing to change it and why.
The US is still the sole superpower today. But its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding.
China’s leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economic strength, culture and values.
Meanwhile, Japan is trying to regain its status as a “real country” bearing full powers of “defence” while shedding its militaristic past. That is proving to be quite a challenge.
China and the US clearly have fundamentally different views of the principles upon which relations between them should be based.
To avoid disaster, the US should help China moderate its stance by accommodating to some degree its regional interests and aspirations – in short, by sharing power.
For its part, China needs to accept genuine US efforts to engage it and prove by its actions that it is not seeking military conflict.
Without such flexibility on both sides, a potentially disastrous collision of “core” interests is inevitable.
The writer is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.
Whiff of war as barbs fly in territorial spats