VIEW: US-China strategic competition —S P Seth
China has not forgotten the humiliation of western domination in the 19th century. The recent holding of the joint US-South Korean naval exercises in regional waters, against China’s stated opposition, has angered Beijing. It regards such activities by foreign warships and aircraft as a threat to China’s security
The reported military exercises by Chinese forces to defend against a possible US attack have raised tensions between China and the US. The question is: why has China raised the stakes in its relations with the US?
It is important to realise that this is not a sudden phenomenon. There is a history of antagonism between the two countries, following the communist victory in 1949 in China’s civil war. Indeed, with their long historical memory, China has not forgotten the humiliation of western domination in the 19th century, including the US’s advocacy of an ‘open door’ policy in 1899.
But with the ascension to power of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, China sought to concentrate on building up its economy to create a modern and strong nation. Deng’s advice for his people was to bide their time until China was ready to play its role as a great power. Apparently, his successors believe that China’s time has come, with its increased political, economic and military strength. Against a backdrop of its ‘century of humiliation’, China’s reaction to any perceived threat to its sovereignty has a tinge of bitterness, with a new resolve not to allow any power to trample on its homeland.
Two recent incidents have highlighted this sensitivity. First, the holding of the joint US-South Korean naval exercises in regional waters, against China’s stated opposition, has angered Beijing. It regards such activities by foreign warships and aircraft as a threat to China’s security.
By holding its own exercises, China has expressed its anger concretely. As the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) newspaper Military Weekly said, “They send a message…If other people threaten our interests, we have enough military means and technological methods to keep them in check.”
Second, North Korea is increasingly emerging as another flashpoint between China and the US. The US and its western allies seem determined to reverse North Korea’s nuclear path. But Pyongyang is equally determined to use that as a tool to extract as much political and economic advantage as possible. With a view to achieve its goal of de-nuclearisation in North Korea, the US has actively sought China’s help, with its considerable leverage with Pyongyang that relies heavily on Chinese supplies of essential goods. In this respect, the US did have some success, with Beijing hosting six-nation talks (including North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the US) on non-proliferation until North Korea walked away from the talks.
Pyongyang would not agree to abandon its nuclear programme without a sequential link between its various stages and the provision of political legitimacy, aid, trade and other related advantages. Since it would not agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons as a starting point, the entire negotiating process has collapsed. Pyongyang is now refusing to return to the China-hosted six-nation talks and has threatened a ‘physical response’ to new US sanctions and condemned US-South Korean naval exercises as ‘gunboat diplomacy’.
China’s response basically has been to counsel restraint. It has refused to take sides between North Korea and South Korea on the sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, which was blamed on North Korea. But it has not taken kindly to the US-South Korean exercises in seas that it regards as its security zone. This accounts for China’s counter-move to stage its own comprehensive exercises around Beijing and surrounding areas. According to General Zongqi of the PLA, “The aim is to raise fighting capabilities in this military region and make effective preparations for military combat.” This warning is as serious as they come.
North Korea is, therefore, a serious flashpoint. China has obviously decided to detach itself from the US-coordinated continuous pressure on Pyongyang. The US-South Korean joint naval exercises have obviously hardened China’s position. A serious flare up in the Korean peninsula is likely to send a flood of refugees from North Korea into China’s neighbouring region.
At the same time, China regards the Korean peninsula and the seas surrounding it as its security zone. Therefore, the US participation in military exercises is regarded as a threat to China’s security. China seems to suffer from the 1950s Korean War syndrome, when American armies pushed closer to its border with North Korea, inviting Chinese entry into the Korean War. Broadly, though, they want the US naval forces out of the Asia-Pacific region. If that were to eventuate, China will have no real challenge to its regional primacy.
In this tug of war for regional primacy, another important contentious issue is the South China Sea. In the 1990s, China declared the South China Sea as its territorial waters, thus overriding the rival claims of some of its neighbours to a cluster of islands in these waters. However, it agreed to resolve these issues through diplomacy. But now it regards the South China Sea as its ‘core national interest’, which puts it beyond any negotiation.
Even though some of China’s Southeast Asian neighbours might grumble about its high-handedness, most, however, are getting resigned to China’s growing power. The US, though, is not resigned to it because, among other things, China could restrict or control commercial and naval traffic through the South China Sea through its exercise of sovereignty. One-third of global commercial shipping is said to pass through the waters that China claims as its own.
In other words, the strategic competition between China and the US is likely to intensify in the Asia-Pacific region. Considering China’s ‘century of humiliation’ by the West (in which the US was a late entrant), it is seething with anger, just below the surface, to exclude foreigners from ‘its’ region. Such anger is reflected in the comment of a retired Chinese admiral (reported in The Economist) who likened “the American navy to a man with a criminal record ‘wandering just outside the gate of a family home’”.
It would appear that even though neither the US nor China is itching for military confrontation, there is always the danger of some miscalculation in a charged atmosphere. Over time, the strategic competition is likely to increase and intensify. If the history of the two world wars is any guide, there is always the danger of such competition sliding into confrontation and, eventually, leading to conflagration.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia