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China Becoming More Assertive in the South Pacific

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By William Tucker

A report in today’s Financial Times describes how China has become more assertive in disputed areas of the South Pacific. As one might imagine this is making China’s neighbors quite nervous. In response to this pressure from Beijing several nations of East Asia are reaching out to the U.S. as a means of countering Chinese moves. This includes former adversaries such as Vietnam. However, it is unrealistic to assume that these nations would leave their national security in the hands of a foreign power. Vietnam along with Japan, India, and South Korea has increased the rate at which they are modernizing their respective navies as a countermeasure to China’s naval growth.

China is well aware that the U.S. will not remain militarily involved in Afghanistan and the Middle East indefinitely – at least not at the current level. The U.S. war on terror is rapidly changing in makeup and the window that China is now operating in will eventually close. Beijing fully expects that Washington’s focus on East Asia will return with a vengeance once the U.S. is able to realign its military posture. But China has learned something rather valuable in the last decade – a non-state, transnational group has managed to keep the most powerful military in the world busy in multiple theaters of combat. In the minds of the PLA, this serves to reinforce their belief, as stated in 1993, that the U.S. can be defeated by asymmetric means. This also serves to explain why Beijing maintains relations with international terrorist groups. Xu Junping, a Chinese Colonel who defected to the U.S. in May 2001, discussed these relations in detail.

Two years ago I outlined this new threat, and the regional response, in series of articles describing the realignment of world powers. The following is the original article I wrote in 2009.

The Great Unraveling – A New Alliance in the East

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lost in the obsessive coverage of the Iranian elections is the move by Vietnam to purchase 6 diesel electric Kilo class submarines and several aircraft from the Russians. On the surface this agreement appears to be nothing more than a routine purchase of military hardware. However, when placed in context of territorial water disputes with China a new dynamic reveals itself. All nations look to use military means not only to provide security, but to push its foreign policy far beyond its borders to support economic growth. China, which lives and dies by its cheap exports, is certainly no different. It is for precisely this reason that Chinas military expansion is quickly putting the Asian giant on a crash course with most of its neighbors.

With the world’s third largest economy and the world’s largest population China is moving forward at a breakneck pace trying to modernize its military so it can protect the trade routes that Beijing lives by. As such, China is looking to create a navy that can dominate in all bordering seas and even in places such as the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. The communist country is also looking to expand is water claims clear into the backyards of many neighboring nations in an attempt to secure energy exploration rights. Other regional powers such as Japan, South Korea, and India in concert with lesser powers such as Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia are having none of it.

It comes as no surprise to many that China is the most active nation engaged in espionage against the U.S. What does come as a surprise is that number two is India and number three is South Korea. These two nations do not engage in espionage against the U.S. for nefarious means but rather do so to augment legally purchased American military technology. The aggressive moves by China explain this. This maneuvering by China has caused nations that have little more than warm relations to consider taking defense cooperation to the next level. This doesn’t, and probably will not, result in a creation of an East Asian version of NATO, but it will force nations that feel threatened by China to reach out to one another. For many East Asian nations the U.S. has long been regarded as the main security provider, but in a busy and violent world these nations are starting to rely on assets that are a little closer to home.

This of course will lead to a standoff of sorts; not all that different from a Cold War. What we can expect to see in the not too distant future is the use of rogue actors by the nations involved to keep their adversaries of balance. In the face of excessive military power the cost and duration of a war becomes counterproductive making the use of rogues all the more attractive. For Beijing, using North Korea to intimidate Japan and South Korea all the while using rogues in the east, such as the Naxalites against India, is a cheap and nonconfrontational way to keep the other powers busy. Of course, India can respond by sowing unrest in the Chinese provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang while Japan and South Korea instigate independence movements in Taiwan.

Currently, the East Asian nations have been cooperating to alleviate the fallout from the global recession by working through The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, by pooling money to help member nations that have been hit hardest. In an attempt to avoid conflict nations will use diplomacy and common goals to put off what may be inevitable. In this case China must take measures to ensure that its economy stays strong even at the expense of good relations, but the reality is that Beijing’s need to stay strong will put it at odds with its neighbors. This is the crisis of East Asia.

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