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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Trouble Spots in East Asia

Nov 09, 2022
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

East Asia and the western Pacific are the areas where the interests of these powers clash. The U.S. and its partners, as status quo powers, promote what they term as the ‘rules-based order.’  As an ascending power, China is understandably uncomfortable with an order imposed by the victors of the WWII. The U.S. and its partners naturally want to cut China’s ambitions and like in any game of power politics curb China’s rise where it can pose a threat to America’s hegemon status. 

Three disputes in East Asia keeps U.S.-China relations off balance. It begins with U.S. policies over Taiwan even though the U.S., by switching diplomatic recognition in 1979, accepts ‘one China’ and acknowledges Beijing as the legitimate government and Taiwan as a ‘renegade province.’ 

Most recently, in a case of policy double-speak, the U.S. used China’s predictable reaction to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to announce $1.1 billion of military supplies for Taiwan that lays bare America’s intentions in East Asia. 

The U.S., for the first time, crossed the line of ‘strategic ambiguity’ over the issue of Taiwan when President Biden announced that the U.S. would respond militarily if there was an attack over Taiwan. 

Having triggered the crises and raising the threat levels, the U.S. Government still claims that, “nothing about the visit changed one iota of the U.S. government's policy toward Taiwan or towards China.”

America’s provocation has placed managing tensions over the Taiwan Straits at the very center of the U.S.-China relationship, at least in the short run.

South China Sea 

The other area where American policies are in direct opposition to the rise of China is in the South China Sea (SCS), from where a third of global maritime trade valued at U.S.$3 trillion passes annually. Estimates of undersea wealth by both China and the U.S. vary. The Chinese in 2012 estimated that the SCS contains 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The U.S. estimates released a year later puts the figure at 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. On top of these vast energy reserves, in 2015, fish caught in the SCS constituted 12 percent of global supplies. 

China's claim over the area, based on the ‘nine dash line,’ which extends 1,200 nautical miles away from mainland China, puts China in direct conflict with Brunei., Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. China bases its claim on history while the other states refer to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China, Vietnam and the Philippines have, to a varying degree, built up facilities over some of the contested islets and rocks demonstrating their physical presence. The U.S. and its partners like Australia, Britain and France challenge China by conducting ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations within 12 miles of some of the islets inhabited by the Chinese. For now, the Chinese only protest hoping for the day when they have a better power equation with the ‘intruders.’

China and the U.S. approach the ASEAN countries and other countries in the Asia-Pacific differently. For China it is all about economics. But for the U.S. it is all about security and politics. Economics is only a supplement in pursuit of the other two goals. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping has assured the international community that commercial shipping is guaranteed in the SCS and it is only the navy ships that China disallows in the SCS.

East China Sea 

The archipelago of Diaoyu/Senkaku in the East China Sea is a focus of the regional rivalry between China and Japan.

Of the eight islets - three are essentially barren rocks and span about 7 sq. km in total. Located close to key shipping lanes, they could lie near potentially huge reserves of oil and natural gas deposits, based on a 1969 UN report.

After surveys in 1885, when Japan claimed these islets belonged to no one, Japan incorporated the islands into its territory during the first Sino-Japanese War and has been administering them since then. From 1945 until 1972 however, these islands remained under American occupation. The islands reverted to Japanese administration in 1972, following the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

In 1971, China began formally disputing Tokyo's claim over what it calls Diaoyu islands, claiming that the islands were part of Chinese territory since the 14th century. But China didn’t escalate the situation and the status quo remained until 2012.  Tensions flared up when the Japanese government bought three of the islets from their private owner, proclaiming direct rule. The change of status sparked anti-Japanese protests in China. In November 2013, China set up an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea demanding that foreign planes abide by Chinese rules when entering the airspace over the disputed islands.

Crisis management talks between China and Japan have been stalemated.  While Shinzo Abe’s nationalist rhetoric hardened Japan’s posture, the declaration by President Obama on April 24, 2014 in a joint press conference with Shinzo Abe that the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty covers these islands makes the U.S. a party to the conflict. Should a clash escalate, this self-declared legal obligation could draw the U.S. into the conflict. 

This complicates China-U.S. relations further and puts East Asia in a quandary. 

Barring Japan and Australia perhaps, most countries in East Asia are not prepared to face a choice between China and the U.S. Economic interests of all regional states lie with China. The chronology of events expected in the region does not bode well for the future though.  President Xi Jinping has been nominated for an unprecedented third term. Both the U.S. and Taiwan will hold their mid-term elections in November. Taiwan is due to hold its presidential elections in January 2024. And if the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party wins a third successive term, the road to peaceful reunification will narrow farther.

As the biggest trading nation, China seeks to have control over its sea lanes and territorial disputes regarding Taiwan and the South and East China Seas. China will likely bide its time and wait to pursue a peaceful resolution to all these disputes when the global power equation is more favorable to its interests. 


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