By Deedar Hussain Samejo (Pakistan)
President Obama's trip to four Asian countries last month was the latest in a series of visits aimed at propping up "rebalance to the Asia-Pacific". Following Secretory of Defense Chuck Hagel’s 10-day trip, the U.S. president headed for Asia with the intention to sign new security pacts and trade deals and reassure its insecure allies of full support in case of conflict with aggressive China, along with sending message to Beijing that the U.S. would keep its strong presence in the Pacific rim.
In many ways, Obama's trip was part of a larger attempt to pursue the undeclared containment of rising China who threatens the U.S. status as a sole super power. In this regard, president's declaration that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are covered by the Japan-U.S. security Treaty and landmark defense pact with the Philippines were the two most significant developments. While reassuring its allies, the president tried to avoid angering Chinese leadership, stating that "our goal is not contain China". He also reiterated that "we have strong relations with China" and " encourage its peaceful rise".
Obama's assurance to China, however, is unlikely to change the mindset of Chinese top brass who believe that Obama's words are mere rhetoric that do not match with the U.S. actions. The official Xinhua news agency described the tour "a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant".
Since the announcement of so-called "pivot", China has been fearful and suspicious of U.S. activities in the Asia-Pacific. It sees every U.S. act as an attempt to counter its rise and isolate her in the region. China believes that U.S-led military alliances in the region are the biggest long-term security threat to its stability and territorial integrity. This has prompted Beijing to replace its 'peaceful rise' policy with military adventurism and expansionism. It has adopted an aggressive attitude to enhance its regional influence and counterbalance the sophisticated American alliance system in Asia-Pacific in order to preserve its ambiguous "core interests" of security, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In other words, China's assertive and muscular foreign policy is a reaction to U.S. "pivot", indicating the deepening competition between the superpower and its challenger. In addition, it is born out of lust for regional dominance and jingoism of Chinese people Over the last ten years, Beijing continues to beef up its military forces to back up its aggressive diplomacy. It announced in March that it would increase its defense budget for 2014 to $132 billion, a 12.2 per cent increase over the last year. Its actions are being closely watched by its neighbors, especially Japan, and their key ally, the United States. Many analysts rightly believe that Chinese heavy investment in military is a part of long-term ambitious plan to overtake the United States.
Since China lacks soft power, its choice of hard power is understandable. Its intent to seek regional hegemony through coercion is not surprising; aggression is a typical attitude for a rising power, and China views itself as a rising power. This also shows that China's primary objective is to revise the regional order in its favor and regain its historical regional dominance. For that, it is trying to alter the status quo by using different strategic tactics. In the last few years, Chinese territorial aggression has triggered serious diplomatic tensions with the smaller neighbors in East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Most recent China's expansionist territorial claims came on May 2 when it deployed an oil rig in the disputed area claimed by Vietnam in the South China sea. Since then, tensions continue to escalate as each country accuses the other of ramming ships and using water cannons. China is also in bitter disputes with US allies Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, which have overlapping claims in the sea and its uninhabited islands. China's relations with the Philippines have become tense since the latter filed a case against the former over a reef in the international arbitration tribunal in The Hague under the law of sea convention. And last year, China's unilateral declaration of Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, a calculated move to check the scale of the Washington''s reaction and its commitment to Tokyo, prompted strong reaction form Japan and the U.S. It compelled the former to revisit the Pacifist Constitution and has brought the two countries closer.
Regional dominance, Chinese leadership believes, is a linchpin of global dominance. Therefore, it is trying to counter U.S. encirclement and maximize its geopolitical influence in the region through expansionism. Unlike the past, Beijing is not behaving as neutral player anymore, not least in dealing with the regional issues. It is seeking regional hegemony by confronting with the U.S-friendly bloc.
Policies of both the superpower and its challenger show that none of them are willing to make concessions. The U.S. is unwilling to accommodate and adapt to the rise of China, fearing that this will undermine American interests in the region and beyond. Chinese leadership is not in the mood to accept the U.S-led hegemonic regional order, suspecting that Washington aims to contain and isolate rising China.
The two view each other as hidden enemies, always mistrustful and suspicious of each other's intentions This has led them to maximize their security power in every dimension. The former is strengthening defense alliances, building new military bases and doing secret surveillance of Chinese naval exercises in the coastal waters of western Pacific seas. And the latter is committed to building a new blue-water navy and ultra-modern ballistic missile defense.
Actions of both the U.S. and China, however, do not match their rhetoric. Chinese leadership's concept of "new type of great power relationship" and Obama administration's persistent denial of U.S. encirclement of China are merely hypocritical cant that contradict their military and political activities in Asia-Pacific. The two are playing a risky game of security brinkmanship that can go too far, dragging them, along with regional countries, into military conflicts. Escalating tensions in the region are a clear manifestation of increasing strategic competition between China and the U.S-led bloc.
Today, this competition is about primacy in Asia-Pacific. America feels that its superiority is at stake with the rise of China. The "rebalance" is aimed at preventing China from dominating the region so that the United States can retain its primacy. China is trying to undermine the American primacy by stepping up efforts to increase its regional dominance and create a new Sino-centric Asian order in which it can properly accommodate its broad-based strategic objectives, and ultimately push the U.S. out of the Pacific. This is likely to increase the confrontation between Washington and Beijing in the coming years.
Given the tangled web of security affairs in the Asia-Pacific, intensifying tensions are leading to an arms race in the region. In order to achieve security deterrence against China, its adversaries, especially Japan, have opted for militarism. In addition, they are pressing the United States for adopting a proactive security strategy. This, in turn, can prompt China to be more confrontational, making the South China Sea and East China Sea as potential global flash-points.
Deedar Hussain Samejo is a MA student in Political Science at University of Sindh, Pakistan. He also writes for Asia Times.