Asians scurry among giants on the verge of war.
Although world powers have largely been distracted by their crusades in the Middle East, and South America in the case of China and Russia, the rise of China as a global power with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy has set the stage for Asia to become the focus of a major global power struggle. Undertaking what it deems a “freedom of navigation patrol” through the Paracel Islands on January 30, the US Navy once again responded to China’s island-building efforts in the South China Sea. The ongoing South China Sea Crisis can either be the spark that ignites a major conflict or the catalyst that helps resolve long-standing territorial disputes.
Despite Beijing’s sensitivity to US military activity in its backyard, the reality that the US vessel stayed 12 nautical miles away from the Chinese administered, yet disputed, Triton Island means the US did not directly challenge Chinese sovereignty or territorial claims. The Obama Administration does hope to assure America’s Asian partners that the US will help defend them against Chinese aggression, but the measured actions of the US Navy only discourage the closing of international waters. For that reason, the US and the Asian nations in conflict with China must directly address Beijing’s intentions or risk a standoff in the South China Sea escalating into an armed conflict.
Given Beijing’s anger over a US presence outside of its disputed territories and attempt to frame US actions as a violation of Chinese sovereignty, China’s efforts to build artificial islands with military infrastructure are likely not just a means to legitimize its claims over the resource- rich waters of the South China Sea. It is a military buildup intended to enforce China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and beyond. The biggest problem is that Beijing relies on China’s extensive history to legitimize its territorial claims. As such, what Beijing considers Chinese territory appears to greatly depend on what points in history are most convenient.
Considering Beijing’s claims could include China’s neighbors, such as the Koreas, and a large part of Russian territory, the Chinese government’s long-term agenda could be very detrimental to the peoples within these lands. A conflict with the US or Russia would be problematic for China, even if it manages to garner the support of Russia against the US. Where a war of attrition with strategic periods of aggression would help China slowly consume much of Asia, the US and its Asian allies are already alarmed by what is relatively mild Chinese aggression. Consequently, the US is positioning itself to manage Chinese aggression by rallying allies against the massive country.
China cannot afford to sever long-term economic ties with the International Community. In accordance, Beijing has been actively entangling itself in the economies of the world from Africa to South America, from Europe to Russia through investments and massive spending. While this may earn Beijing some influence, that influence will evaporate just as quickly as US influence has when its partners find China to be an inconvenience. That said, Beijing’s investments may help sustain and globally empower the Chinese government, but China’s current economic woes and dependency on global consumption threaten the livelihoods of the Chinese People.
Beijing is attempting to expand its global reach and its borders, yet its failings at home during an economic crisis breed civil unrest. Beijing’s aggression amplifies its economic woes by discouraging trade with China. Frankly, the rulers of China have gotten greedy to the point they will soon no longer be able to manage their own borders. Consequently, Beijing has every interest to both end the current tensions and avoid a broader conflict by abandoning whatever agenda it is implementing. What Beijing needs to do is candidly engage its neighbors about its intentions and find ways to resolve the underlying territorial disputes in play before a major armed conflict arises.
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