The Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea (ECS) and the South China Sea (SCS) today have become major challenges for China in the Asia-Pacific. Besides posing a challenge to China, these regions have remained volatile in the recent months. What are the major trends? And more importantly, what are the major challenges for China in this region?
Asia-Pacific: Major Trends
Taiwan Strait: There has not been much change on China’s stand and the situation is relatively peaceful. China is hopeful of solidifying and deepening the political, cultural and social foundation for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations that can facilitate eventual unification. China would like to maintain this calm, given the turbulence in other regions.
Korean Peninsula: China is facing a complex situation here. De-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table of Six-Party talks will be a litmus test for the new leadership. In South Korea, the President elect is looking forward “to deepen the comprehensive strategic alliance with the United States and take the strategic cooperative partnership with China to the next level.” Here, the South Korean tilt towards the US will be a major challenge. China seems to be pursuing wait and watch strategy.
Island Disputes: China has been assertive on the two island disputes. In the second half of December, Chinese surveillance planes flew near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands four times and again on 5 January 2012. It was perhaps for the first time since 1958 that China sent a propeller plane over the Island. Further, four patrol vessels entered the territorial waters of the ECS. These developments have taken bilateral relations between the second largest and the third largest economies of the world to a worrying phase and can cast shadow on the Asia-Pacific century.
In the SCS region, China claims almost ninety percent of the area. Recently it has been printing maps consisting of nine-dashes on new e-passports. Further, it announced that it will invest more than 10 billion RMB to build infrastructure on disputed islands. Chinese military forces held air and ground defence exercises in Sansha city. The Chinese plan of deploying of Haixun 21, an ocean-going patrol vessel equipped with a helipad, in contested water is contrary to UNCLOS. These alarming moves by China give an impression that it is prepared to take the Islands by force and does not care about international norms. In addition, China has put its own satellite GPS system into a trial operation. Guided by this system, China’s missiles and bombs will be much more accurate. Additionally, six more satellites have been launched to cover the Asia-Pacific region.
The eighteenth party congress report, for the first time, defined China as a ‘maritime power’ that will firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests. It also illustrated that China views maritime disputes as a whole–of–government issue rather than just a military one. These developments in the region really make the Chinese maxim “keeping a low profile” irrelevant.
Understanding China’s Strategy in Asia-Pacific: A Response to American Pivot?
Asia-Pacific is crucial for China as it needs a peaceful environment for its rise. In context of which, the involvement of the US in the Taiwan Strait, Korean Peninsula and of other powers in the island disputes has begun to disrupt the peace.
Two main reasons behind China’s behaviour is the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific and its growing domestic consumption. The US has started increasing investments, trade and economic cooperation; and continues to maintain active political and diplomatic engagements in the region. Soon after elections, US President Obama paid a visit to Southeast Asia, the trip essentially being a symbol of the growing US ‘pivot’ to Asia. The US is already deploying troops under its rebalancing policy in this vital region; as is Japan, thus forging a ‘diamond’ with the US, Australia and India.
There has been rising nationalist uproar in Beijing over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Growing domestic oil consumption is the major source for China’s push towards the Asia-Pacific region. China’s oil imports from Middle East and Africa pass through the Indian Ocean, into Strait of Malacca and through the SCS. Additionally, according to Chinese sources the SCS could contain as much as 150 billion barrels of oil and natural gas and the ECS could 70-160 billion barrels of oil. Chinese media has referred to the SCS as the second ‘Persian Gulf’. Disputes in this region are already hampering China’s trade and have started changing the security calculation of regional actors. It is imperative for China to import more oil to meet its domestic demand.
China asserts that it will always be a good neighbour, good friend and good partner for other Asia-Pacific countries and contribute more to building a peaceful, growing, prosperous and harmonious Asia-Pacific region (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-07/11/content_15569603.htm). Developments in the region have posed a serious challenge for China’s great power status ambition. Thus, it remains to be seen whether China continues to be assertive or recalibrates its foreign policy in the region to project its policy of ‘Peaceful Development’.