In an era of increased resource competition, the oil, natural gas and other minerals under the South China Sea's sea bed, as well as control of their sea lanes, have become spectacular prizes sought by nations with competing territorial claims to them. With the US, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and India all taking aggressive actions (military and/or economic and diplomatic), the dangers of miscalculation leading to disastrous armed conflict have arisen.
These shifting region dynamics have generated external shocks to what has been the prevailing framework. The so-called "pivot" of the US from Iraq and Afghanistan to East Asia and its provocative actions have sparked tensions. At the same, time smaller claimant countries have expressed anxiety over changing dynamics resulting from China's rapid growth and increasing international reach.
Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's policy of joint development offers a framework for maintaining peace and harmony in the region, as does the paradigm of Common Security which facilitated an end to the Cold War.
The US is not returning to Asia because it never left. The US has maintained hundreds of military bases and installations, some with nuclear war fighting roles, in Japan, Korea and elsewhere in the region since 1945. These bases, including those in Guam and the Philippines, made possible the Indochina War which claimed an estimated six million lives, and the nuclear threats against China and North Korea.
More recently, US forward military bases across the Pacific and East Asia served as jumping off points for the US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. The combination of militarism, the belief that it is the "manifest destiny" of the US to enforce what it's elite has long understood as "order" in the world, and the US military-industrial-Congressional complex and its vested interests are the ideological and political foundations of this self-defeating approach which serves neither the US people nor those of other nations.
And, now we have the so-called "pivot" toward Asia, the expansion and reinforcement of the US military's threatening presence across the Pacific and Asia. This campaign by Washington to manage China's rise, in part through this military containment, is both self-defeating and a significant cause of rising tensions across Asia and the Pacific.
There is a saying in the US that a nation can't simultaneously have guns and butter. Like many who travel to China, I have been impressed by the infrastructure investments which have transformed the nation and laid the foundations for future prosperity. The contrast with the US is striking. Here our government scrimps on infrastructure investment, which results in the loss of the material conditions essential for our children's and grandchildren's prosperity and security.
Lack of national wealth is not the cause of this failure to provide for the US people. Instead, as former President Dwight Eisenhower once warned, a combination of military-industrial- Congressional complex vested interests, now reinforced by the cultural influences of militarism and imperialism, have resulted in severely distorted national priorities. While the nation spends more than $600 billion in a futile campaign to ensure full spectrum dominance over the world's nations, funding for education, health care, housing and infrastructure here in the US is being cut. People's real security needs are not being met. AFSC's Wage Peace campaign and many other civil society organizations are working to reorder US national priorities.
Meanwhile, with China's rapid growth, changing domestic dynamics, and increased Chinese military activity, concerns have been generated in Southeast Asian countries. Increasingly lively discussions in the Chinese media have generated a range of viewpoints, including arguments by military commentators for a shift in the traditional joint development policy. Emboldened by the increased military, economic and diplomatic priorities being given to East Asia and the Pacific by the US and India, this has lead Southeast Asian states to revise their approaches to the South China Sea. And this in turn has sparked nationalistic responses in China. These multiple dynamics threaten to undermine the region's security environment.
Given the needs for and rights of all people to economic security, my hope is that all nations with claims to or interests in the South China Sea will adopt win-win Common Security approaches resolving these dangerous tensions. The Seas' mineral resources can be used to equitably address the development needs of all the nations which claim rights to them. A multilateral security system can be created to ensure unhindered passage by all across the Sea's shipping lanes.
The recent agreement to base 2,500 US Marines in Australia, the campaign to extend the US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan for another decade or more, drone and other US military attacks in Pakistan, and the growing military cooperation between the United States and India all undermine security and increase South and Central Asian military tensions. Given the importance of the Indian Ocean's sea lanes to Chinese economic security and the need to respond to military build ups on China's periphery by less than friendly powers, China's leaders will understandably take actions they believe necessary to enhance their country's security.
The challenge before us is for statesmen and civil society to reframe the paradigm to one that relies on diplomacy to work for enduring human security. As Eisenhower, himself a war hero, told the US people, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Military expenditures divert essential and limited national resources from bringing people out of poverty (15 percent of the US population) and addressing essential human needs.
The US military build up in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is thus contrary to interests of the US people. Here, midst our economic crisis and what even the elite publication Foreign Affairs describes as "American Decline" our tax dollars would be better spent by preventing housing foreclosures, ensuring that working and middle class students can afford college educations, and providing health care for our increasingly aging population (myself included!)
One can hope that wise Chinese, US and South Asian statesmen, and possibly others from civil society, will build on previous models of collaboration – for example in East Timor – to find ways to reframe the discourse and to change the paradigm from zero-sum militarized competition to win-win Common Security diplomacy. We would all benefit from reduced military tensions and expenditures in order to reinforce development and ensure real security.
War is in no one's interest, and since 1945 all wars carry with them the dangers of horizontal and vertical escalation to nuclear war and the resulting catastrophe for all humanity.
Given the history of the nuclear threats made during the Kargil War and current Pakistani and Indian nuclear doctrines and build-ups, the possibility exists that, midst the fog and fears of war, so-called "conventional" war could escalate to catastrophic nuclear war. This has been exacerbated by the war in Afghanistan, Pakistani-based terrorist attacks in Kashmir and India proper, by India's new "Cold Start" doctrine of retaliation against such attacks, and by Pakistan's nuclear build up designed to deter a "Cold Start" Indian invasion.
It is in everyone's interest for nations with influence in South Asia to encourage active diplomacy to resolve the region's disputes and conflicts. With the diplomatic, economic, technological and strategic assents that China and the US can bring to collaborative diplomacy, and with their abilities to engage other influential nations in the region, China and the US could collaboratively contribute to untangling South and Central Asia's historic tensions, fears and disputes. If we understand war as, at least in significant measure, the failure of diplomacy, the imperative of imaginative, collaborative and resolute diplomacy should be apparent.
War in South Asia is thus certainly not inevitable, and collaborative diplomacy can make enormous contributions to peace.
The author is Director of Programs of the American Friends Service Committee's New England Regional Office