TSG IntelBrief: A Pivot In Time: US-Asian Commitments & China’s Assertions
April 25, 2014

A PIVOT IN TIME: US-ASIAN COMMITMENTS & CHINA’S ASSERTIONS

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Bottom Line Up Front

• President Obama’s current trip to meet the leaders of four Asian nations comes at a time of rising regional dynamics playing out against a backdrop of shifting security and economic assumptions

• The US must provide realistic security assurances to its allies—who are concerned about Chinese actions and intentions—that go beyond symbolism but fall short of antagonism, all the while balancing economic considerations

• The regional maritime tensions among numerous Asian countries reflect more than an ascendant China seeking to expand its sphere of influence; they indicate the current reality of regional powers seeking a return to historic standing regardless of modern boundaries and treaties.

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President Obama’s ongoing Asian visit is intended to reassure anxious allies that the US is committed to maintaining mutually-beneficial stability in the region through a balance of implicit military capability and explicit political will. With his visits to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, President Obama will seek to advance the regional trade pact Trans-Pacific Partnership while reassuring these governments that the US will provide some level of protection (diplomatic, economic, and, increasingly, military) vis-à-vis China. Each of these four countries—and several others in the region, including Vietnam and India—have contentious maritime or territorial disputes with China, which have led to naval force near-misses, seized ships, and new claims of sovereignty.

Among these disputes—mostly about territorial waters and the fishing and mineral rights that accompany the small land masses—are:

Chinese claims to Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea, which Japan calls Senkaku and China refers to as Diaoyu.

Chinese claims on a small reef 105 nautical miles from the Philippines in the South China Sea that the Philippines call Ayungin—and which they endeavor to keep the claims current by periodically resupplying a long-ago grounded and empty ship on the reef—and that the Chinese call Ren’ai Reef.

Overlapping territorial claims in the Yellow Sea between China and South Korea that have led to violent clashes between naval and fishing vessels. According to the applicable United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can claim up to 200 nautical miles from its shore, and countries with overlapping zones are presumed to work the issues out. China and South Korea have met many times but have yet to resolve the issue.

Multiple claims on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, with Malaysia, Philippines, and China among the nations seeking legal recognition of respective holdings among the islands. The islands have sizable reserves of oil and natural gas, and a claim on the island extends the territorial rights of whichever nation claims it.

In both the Spratly Islands and Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes, China is reaching past widely-accepted modern conventions and treaties back to historic claims, often dating many hundreds of years ago. To the Chinese, the historic names it used for territories long ago constitute more valid claims than current administration and sovereignty. They evoke the height of China’s past sphere of influence, while the current situation envisages its nadir.

In a sense, what is happening in the region is somewhat similar to current events in Eurasia, though with significant caveats. Broadly speaking, each region is witnessing a historic regional power seeking to expand from its current position to what it views as its natural and historic position as regional hegemon. The bipolar stability of the Cold War and its unipolar aftermath are nearly gone from the scene, leaving traditional powers chaffing at conventional geopolitics. That said, China has been relatively constrained in its actions (certainly given the imbalance of power with its neighbors), while Russia has defied international norms. Therefore, the comparison is less about looking at individual actions than understanding the reasoning behind them, as the desire to return to ancient spheres of influence instead of recently demarcated borders drives actions.

In Ukraine, but far more so in Asia, this return to the “new old” is putting the US in geopolitically uncomfortable positions. The US must provide security assurances that are more than symbolic but not antagonistic, that have to be seen as both credible and restrained. This is not an easy task, especially given the intricate economic co-dependencies between the US and China. Both Japan and China need to believe the US will back Japan’s continued administration of Senkaku. What that backing entails is unclear, since a military confrontation between China and the US over islands less than seven square kilometers in size—however possible under treaty obligations—is nearly unthinkable; US-China 1950s brinksmanship over the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu notwithstanding.

The US enjoys long-standing close relations with each of the four nations on President Obama’s trip, relationships that have at their foundation an understanding that the US guarantees a meaningful level of stability through diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities. These commitments will increasingly be tested as China seeks to supplant current conventions and treaties with historic standing.

These countries, and the others in the region, will be less focused on what is said during this week-long trip than on what happens between the US and the country not visited: China. For these countries, how the US and China co-navigate the new geopolitical reality—in which the US remains the undisputed global superpower and China an undisputed regional power with global aspirations—will provide a clearer understanding of future boundaries and limitations than will pivots and assurances.

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