Power trip: might China’s struggles with its neighbours bring war to Asia?

For the first time in decades, China is making aggressive territorial claims in the South and East China seas – sparking an arms race as its neighbours turn to the US for protection.

US President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in November. The Obama administration's policy to 'pivot' resources to Asia is a thought to be an attempt to constrain China. Feng Li / Getty Images
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From the air, the Spratly Islands, a cluster of miniature rocks and sandbars 425,000 kilometres square in the middle of the South China Sea, are almost imperceptible. Even up close, the Spratlys do not look like much – a few islands have tiny rocky beaches or occasional makeshift buildings. A tiny contingent of Filipino marines camps on a rusty hulk of an American ship from the Second World War grounded in the Spratlys.

It’s hard to believe these outcroppings could be at the centre of an international dispute, let alone one that could lead to a future Asian war. But the Spratlys are not only claimed by China as Beijing’s exclusive economic zone. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei angrily retort that parts of the South China Sea belong to them, including areas that Beijing insists is China’s alone.

The South East Asian countries and China have been unable to resolve their overlapping claims to the sea, believed to be rich in oil and strategically vital – more than US$5 trillion (Dh18.4 trillion) in trade passes through annually. The Philippines and Vietnam have asked an international tribunal to rule on what areas of the South China Sea are within Beijing’s exclusive economic zones but any decision will be meaningless; China argues that the tribunal has no power.

In the past three years, under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has for the first time since Mao stated its desire to be the dominant power in Asia. China’s leadership is asserting long-dormant claims to unsettled land borders and large portions of Asia’s waters, including the South China Sea and the East China Sea in North East Asia, and demanding that it, not America or Japan, lead regional organisations. With the United States desperately trying to maintain its influence in Asia, countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and many others that relied on US protection are scrambling to build up their own armies and navies.

China does not appear threatened. In November, during a forum sponsored by a Chinese military organisation, China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin declared that “Asian countries bear primary responsibility for the security of their region”, a statement interpreted as a warning to the United States. While the forum was being held, satellite photos revealed that China had been secretly building a landing strip in the Spratlys – one that could allow Chinese military aircraft to land in the archipelago in case war broke out.

Despite the increasingly bellicose climate in the region, some Asian businesspeople and leaders believe that growth and trade in Asia, increasingly the powerhouse of the entire world economy, will prevent tensions from escalating. Asia’s economies are becoming increasingly integrated. China already has a free trade deal in place with the 10 countries of South East Asia, and Beijing has become the major trading partner of most other Asian economies, as well as a huge aid donor to poorer Asian countries. “Asia will experience a new golden era of peace and prosperity over the next 10 years” because of integration and trade, notes Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

But these trade ties might not stop a future war. In many respects, the situation in East Asia today resembles Europe before the First World War. Just as in East Asia today, at that time in Europe rising powers challenged established ones, militarism spread, and countries maintained intricate webs of economic ties. Yet even while they traded with each other, European powers in the 1900s and 1910s launched an arms race, and trade links ultimately did not guarantee peace. The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has admitted that the comparison is apt, telling reporters last year that despite growing Japan-China trade, the two countries are in a “similar situation” as Britain and Germany were shortly before the First World War, when the European powers engaged in a naval arms race while also becoming major trading partners.

As happened then in Europe, today’s East Asian standoff could end bloodily. China and South East Asian countries are becoming more openly hostile to each other. Beijing has warned ExxonMobil and other big oil and gas companies not to launch joint ventures with South East Asian nations to explore the South China Sea. Chinese officials also have become explicit in warning South East Asian countries not to challenge Beijing’s claims to water and land. “China is a big country and other countries [in South East Asia] are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” the Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi declared at a summit of China and South East Asian countries in 2010.

In an interview last year with The New York Times, Philippines President Benigno Aquino III pointedly compared China's rising assertiveness to the Nazis' domination of Europe before the Second World War, though some Filipino officials also have compared the situation in Asia to the period before the First World War. "If we say yes to something we believe is wrong now [giving China its claims to the South China Sea], what guarantee is there that the wrong will not be further exacerbated down the line?" Aquino said. "At what point do you say: 'Enough is enough'? Well, the world has to say it – remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War Two."

Asia’s dangerous environment stems in part from American weakness. Coming into office, Barack Obama launched a policy that would be called “the pivot” to Asia, although the White House now calls it “the rebalance”. The policy was supposed to shift American economic, diplomatic and military resources to Asia from other parts of the world.

The Obama administration publicly denied that one rationale for the pivot was to contain China’s growing power and strengthen American partners that might confront Beijing. But in private administration officials, and many members of the US Congress, admitted that containing China was indeed a reason for the pivot.

Some said so publicly. The former US senator James Webb, head of the Senate subcommittee on Asia during Obama’s first term, pushed for the United States to restore close relations with Myanmar, a pariah for decades because of its brutal military regime. “Sanctions by western governments have not been matched by other countries, particularly Russia and China. Indeed, they have allowed China to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region,” Webb wrote in one prominent op-ed in 2009.

Yet despite its ambitions, the pivot has fallen far short of its promises, leaving many Asian states wondering whether the United States can really serve as a guarantor of security in the coming decades. “The pivot is seen by many in Asia as a slogan but not much more than that,” says one former senior South East Asian leader.

Indeed, despite pledges to boost US assistance to Asian countries, a recent report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found that America is still only spending a measly 4 per cent of its aid money in South East Asia. In addition, although the Obama administration promised to move the bulk of America’s naval assets into the Pacific by the end of this decade, it now appears it will fall well short of that goal. Although this delay is due, in part, to the real threat of conflict along Russia’s borders, the slowdown in moving more of the American navy into the Pacific is perceived, several South East Asian officials say, as a worrying sign that the United States will never be able to divorce itself from events in Europe and the Middle East.

While the pivot has faltered, China’s new leadership has become the most politically powerful within China and the most nationalistic in foreign affairs since the time of Mao. After Mao’s death, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping issued a maxim on Chinese foreign policy that, until 2013, dictated how Beijing acted abroad: “Keep a low profile [in the world] and bide our time.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, Beijing started a new charm offensive towards its neighbours, boosting aid and investment to Asian countries, tempering any military moves and launching cultural diplomacy across the region.

During that time, Beijing also played down its existing disputes over waters in the South and East China seas. As it does now, Beijing still claimed nearly all of the South China Sea, and those claims were challenged by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia. But China generally stopped publicising its vast claims.

Yet in the past three years, new Chinese president Xi Jinping, and the group of leaders around him, have shattered Deng’s maxim of humility and abandoned the charm offensive. Today’s Chinese leaders are the first generation that rose up in the party after the Cultural Revolution, and have only known an increasingly rich and powerful China – yet one that still had to play by international rules created by the West.

As president, Xi has made clear he believes China should regain its regional and global pre-eminence, and he has not been shy of staking that claim. Xi has declared that his goal is to build what he calls the “Chinese dream” – a phrase his confidants explain as meaning he wants to restore China to the power it enjoyed in the world for millennia.

Xi has backed up his words with action. On the one hand, Xi’s power within the Chinese leadership, which he has amassed through skilful backdoor manoeuvring, has allowed him to deliver major domestic and international accomplishments. Last autumn, he agreed on a landmark emissions reduction deal with Obama. Within China, Xi has launched a major crackdown on graft in the Communist Party. Senior officials like former minister of public ­security Zhou Yongkang have been charged with corruption. In October, China also launched a bold new development bank focused on Asia. China has pledged up to $50 billion for the bank.

Yet at the same time, Xi’s assertive style has fostered a foreign policy that seems, to many of China’s neighbours, increasingly threatening. Besides rhetorically claiming much of the South and East China seas, under Xi the Chinese government has had Chinese state oil companies move oil rigs, accompanied by naval or coastguard vessels, into disputed waters as a means of claiming them. Last May, such a move by one of China’s state oil companies triggered anti-China riots in Vietnam that killed at least 20 people and raised the possibility of a war between the two countries. Top Chinese and Vietnamese leaders refused to speak to each other for a month; only in June did their leaders talk and finally cool tensions, for the time being. Beijing also has started buzzing US surveillance planes in Asia, moved thousands of troops to its Himalayan border with India, and declared in 2013 that it controls areas of airspace relatively close to Japan. Since that 2013 declaration, Japanese and Chinese military aircraft have repeatedly buzzed each other, coming close to deadly crashes.

Many countries in East Asia are now clearly frightened of China’s growing power and willingness to use it. Vietnam’s leaders increasingly seem willing to boost ties with the US, even at the risk of totally alienating China, Vietnam’s leading trading partner and longtime strategic ally. This past autumn, the US dropped a ban on selling arms to Hanoi. Several congressional sources predict that the US will, within the next five years, sell significant quantities of weapons to Hanoi and will start large-scale joint military exercises with Vietnam’s armed forces.

The Philippines, which in the early 1990s kicked US armed forces out of the bases it maintained in its former colony, is now so worried about Beijing’s rise that it has essentially welcomed the US army back. Last April, Manila signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Act with Washington, a 10-year deal that basically allows American forces to be stationed in the Philippines again. Philippine national security advisers have also gone privately to Washington repeatedly in the past three years to beg US officials to sell Manila advanced military equipment. Washington agreed to sell the Philippines more arms.

Other countries also have responded to China. Under its new president, Joko Widodo, Indonesia has announced a new foreign policy doctrine that, Jakarta says, will make the country into a maritime power. To show Jakarta is serious, in December Indonesia sank several foreign fishing boats it claimed were illegally operating in Indonesian waters. A senior adviser to the president, Rizal Sukma, told a forum in Washington that the sinking was designed to send a message primarily to China. “We sank Vietnamese boats last week … maybe we will sink Chinese boats after that also,” Sukma said.

Japan has pushed back as well. Last year, Tokyo approved a five-year budget plan to dramatically increase military spending on new fighter planes, submarines and amphibious warfare carriers. Unfortunately, Japan’s growing willingness to defend itself also has come along with historical revisionism. While Abe has pushed to rewrite Japan’s post-Second World War constitution, written by the US occupiers, so that Tokyo can expand its military, he also has appointed senior officials who deny that Japan committed massive atrocities against other Asian peoples during that war, such as forcing captured women into sexual slavery and slaughtering civilians during the occupation of Nanjing in China. This revisionism has only further poisoned Sino-Japanese relations.

Indeed, Asia is now in the middle of a rapid arms race. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks country-by-country military spending, reports that arms sales to East Asia are up by more than 100 per cent since 2005. Clashes in the South and East China seas – between Chinese and Vietnamese boats, Chinese and Filipino boats, Chinese and Japanese boats, and others – occur now on an almost daily basis. On several recent occasions, such as the standoff between Beijing and Hanoi last May, war was only narrowly averted.

If war erupted in East Asia, it could easily draw in America. Although the Obama administration has not explicitly stated how it would respond to conflict in the South or East China seas, the US is a treaty ally of the Philippines, Japan and South Korea, bound to defend these countries against attacks. America also has increasingly close military partnerships with Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and other Asian countries. If China occupied disputed islands in the South China Sea, “of course” the United States would help the Philippines to respond, the head of US naval operations declared last February.

Barack Obama only has two years left in the White House. But after he leaves, there is little guarantee a new American president would help restore calm in Asia.

As secretary of state during Obama’s first term, Hillary Clinton was a central architect of the pivot and was believed to be more hawkish about confronting China than the president. During a trip to Asia in July 2010, Clinton asserted that the South China Sea was a central US “national interest”, the first time an American official had made such a claim. Clinton, the likely Democratic front-runner for the presidency in 2016, is hardly backing down now. She has repeatedly suggested that Obama’s foreign policy is too weak, and that, as president, she would be much tougher on national security affairs.

But even Clinton would not risk war between the biggest powers. Of course, people said the same thing about German and British leaders before the outbreak of the First World War.

Joshua Kurlantzick is Senior ­Fellow for South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest working paper, which examines some of the issues raised in this piece at greater length, can be found here.