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Time to Rethink the Role of US Asia-Pacific Alliances

Sep 01 , 2012

The year 2012 has so far witnessed at least three maritime disputes between China and its neighbors. In April the Philippines and China became embroiled in a standoff over Huangyan Island, also known as Scarborough Shoal, and five months later the Aquino government declared part of South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea”. In June the Vietnamese National Assembly passed the Vietnamese Law of the Sea to include China's Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands in the South China Sea within Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdiction, triggering a quick establishment by the Chinese government of Sansha city administering Xisha (Paracel), Zhongsha and Nansha(Spratly) islands. On September 11, Noda government in Japan announced its decision to nationalize China’s Diaoyu Island and two affiliated islets, viewed by many Chinese as a September 11th attack by Japan on China, and causing strong reactions and countermeasures from China.

Some observers in the West view these disputes as evidence of China’s increasing assertiveness in dealing with the outside world. However, omitted is a key point that in all the above events China has been a defender, not an offender. China sent surveillance ships to Huangyan Island because the Philippines had tried to drive Chinese fishing ships away from the nearby waters. China announced the establishment of Sansha city in the wake of the Vietnamese National Assembly passing Vietnamese Law of the Sea. China started a surveillance ship patrol in response to Japanese purchase of Diaoyu Islands. If we analyze the issue from a historical point of view, more evidence in favor of China’s restraint can be found. Most of the disputed territory or sea between China and its neighbors is actually controlled by the latter. Nevertheless, over the past 30 years China has not fought a single border battle and has not deployed a single combat soldier abroad except its contribution to UN peacekeeping operations and international anti-piracy activities.

That said, the trigger of the disputes is not China’s assertiveness, but its neighbors’ aggressiveness, particularly backed by their bilateral alliances with the US. Actually it is not accidental that their collective aggressiveness coincides with the unfolding of the US Asia Pivot strategy because there is a consequent connection between the two. The Obama Administration often says that it takes no position in East Asia’s territorial disputes, but at the same time it plays tricks to indicate its position, making the tension more complicated. For example, amid the increasingly tense standoff between Beijing and Manila over Huangyan Island, the USS North Carolina, one of the stealthiest submarines in the world, docked in Subic Bay. While Diaoyu Island dispute heated up between China and Japan, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Diaoyu Islands came within the scope of the US-Japan security treaty, and the US navy undertook joint exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. US words and deeds under the guise of regional alliances obviously encouraged Filipino and Japanese aggressive actions towards China, forcing China to take countermeasures to defend its national interests.

Although the Asia-Pacific region is generally viewed as the engine to pull the global economy out of recession, the region has become the largest weapon market in the world. Over the past five years, Asia and Oceania accounted for 44 percent in volume of conventional arms imports, according to a study released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in March. The trend also has close connections with US regional alliances. The US “hub and spoke” model in Asia-Pacific, primarily based on a system of bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, originated from the Cold War. Its existence is based on the existence of a common enemy, which often becomes a game of searching for enemies. The more specific the enemy is, the more energetic the alliances are. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in early 1990s, US regional alliance system lost direction for a couple of years because its confrontational characteristics were incompatible with the general trend of peace and development. However, with China’s rise in recent years US regional alliances look like having found an ideal “enemy” and regaining momentum.

The Cold War mentality and confrontational characteristics inherent in US regional alliances will ultimately result in Asia-Pacific region’s chaos and division. Unlike security-oriented organization such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which takes collective security as its primary mission, US bilateral alliances are defense-oriented, excluding countries other than its allies and forcing its potential competitors to the opposite. Unlike the security-oriented organization, US bilateral alliances do not have the mechanism of discussion, accommodation and compromise, but leave the potential competitors only two choices: accepting the US alliance system unconditionally or being forced to fight with it. Most of the time, the potential competitors are forced to become realistic competitors. Considering the dominant position that the US alliance system has enjoyed in regional security affairs, not surprisingly Asia-Pacific division can be expected, which will be a disaster not only for China, but also for the US, its regional allies and the world as a whole. Thus, now is the time for the US and the region to rethink the role that US bilateral alliances have played in Asia-Pacific security and to establish a security-oriented organization covering all the major players in the region.

The author is deputy director of Center on China-America Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science, PLA.

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