Sea disputes bring unprecedented challenges

By Zheng Yongnian Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-13 23:28:02


Illustration: Liu Rui
Illustration: Liu Rui

In recent years, there has been a prominent problem concerning China: It has had disputes with various maritime neighbors. This is not only because of China's domestic changes, but also due to changes in geopolitics outside China.

In terms of China's own changes, China's economic growth means that it has become highly dependent on other countries' resources. As China invests outside, its interests will inevitably intrude into those of other countries.

In terms of external changes, the most prominent is the US pivot to Asia. The geopolitics of China's neighboring countries has become complicated, and the US' high-profile policy has worsened the situation in Asia.

With China increasingly interacting with the world, marine strategy has unavoidably become a vital factor of the country's overall geopolitical policy. The waters involved in China's marine strategy are the East China Sea, South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

The dispute in the South China Sea is an old one. It has come to the fore in recent years due to the US factor. In July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed US concern over the South China Sea in Vietnam and said the waters concern the US' national interest. In August 2010, US aircraft carrier George Washington arrived and stopped off the coast of Vietnam, and the two countries seemed to become allies overnight. Since then, the US has adjusted its policy toward Asia, politically and economically.

China is paying attention to the US' actions, which is not surprising, because the South China Sea not only concerns China's sovereignty, but is also China's lifeline. Without the South China Sea, China's marine geopolitics would not exist at all.

East of China, there is a strong US-Japan-South Korea alliance. It is difficult to change this US-led alliance.

When the Democratic Party of Japan took power in August 2009, the Yukio Hatoyama administration tried to seek an equal status with the US in the Japan-US alliance, but failed.

After the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010, the US-Japan-South Korea alliance strengthened.

Since 2011, the Sino-Japanese relationship has become tense over the Diaoyu Islands dispute. Although the US will hardly take a stance in favor of Japan regardless of Sino-US relations, the US-Japan alliance makes it difficult for China to solve the East China Sea problem.

Meanwhile, although Japan and South Korea have territorial disputes, it doesn't necessarily mean the three-side alliance will dissolve. It will only add difficulties for the US in maintaining the alliance. All in all, China's emergence as a major power is the reason for the presence of the US-Japan-South Korea alliance.

The presence of the alliance means that China can hardly become a maritime power in the East.

Besides, Japan and South Korea can seek their own interests while infringing on China's. For example, Japan can use it as leverage in negotiations over the East China Sea dispute.

Last, but not least, the alliance will pose a threat to China's national security.

Will China then become a maritime power through the Indian Ocean? It's unlikely.

There is no direct channel between the Indian Ocean and China. Some strategists suggest establishing a channel through Myanmar, but there are many uncertain factors.

Myanmar is seeking to maximize its own national interests. It used to depend on China, but now it is becoming entangled between China, India and even the US.

As for India, it is also an emerging power, and nationalistic sentiment in the country is quite strong.

Many advocate taking a hard stance toward China, which they see as a main rival. India will not allow China to use the Indian Ocean as a stepping stone to becoming a maritime power.

Meanwhile, the Indian-US relationship has been advancing through military cooperation. Once the US views China as an enemy, India is likely to stand by the US.

Consequently, the hope that China will become a maritime power lies in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, China is seeking joint development with countries involved in disputes such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

However, these countries lack the driving force to cooperate with China, as China doesn't have enough influence in terms of hard or soft power in these countries.

Asia's small countries instinctively fear China as a big power, no matter how much sincerity China shows. They need the US to balance China as well as balance themselves.

The US has undergone many tests in establishing its influence in the world, especially in Asia. In this respect, China is facing unprecedented challenges.

The author is director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. The article is part of a speech he made at a recent conference organized by the Western Returned Scholars Association.

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