The US, which is currently winding up its operations from Afghanistan, calls the restructuring and reallocation of its resources towards the Asia Pacific as the ‘Strategy of Rebalancing’, earlier known as the ‘Pivot to East Asia’. China has continuously criticised Washington's deployment of additional ships and personnel to Asia, and the latter’s increasing cooperation both with treaty partners, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, as well as with non-traditional allies such as Vietnam.
China’s uneasiness stems from the fact that the Pivot, as stated by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in June 2012, will see 60 per cent of the US Navy's fleet to be deployed to the Pacific by 2020. Singapore will be home to the US’ four new Littoral Combat Ships designed to fight close to shorelines, while Indonesia is looking to buy a broad range of US hardware and partake in joint manoeuvres. The Philippines is seeking to host more US troops on a rotating basis and Australia has agreed to allow up to 2,500 marines to be deployed to the northern city of Darwin.
Washington’s build-up has invited Beijing’s criticism and strong reactions. The Ministry of National Defense, China, has cited the Pivot as an excuse for its own continued build-up, which has seen a 500 per cent rise since 2000. At $131 billion in 2013, China’s defence spending is second only to the US.
Secondly, China has also cited the US’ example for other actions, especially on its eastern front. Beijing’s moves include its assertion on the East China Sea against Japan and South Korea – both partners of the US – with the implementation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in order to “guard against potential air threats and early warning,” according to the Chinese Ministry of National Defense. The ADIZ encompasses the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the broader region. This has led to escalation of tensions. In response, the US, Japan and South Korea declared the area international waters and airspace.
The regional countries feel that a small and tactical dispute over the one set of islands has the potential to escalate into full-scale war between China and Japan. The US is treaty bound to rescue Japan, in case of Chinese misadventure. Therefore, when the US Pacific Commander Samuel Locklear requested for additional amphibious lift capability from the Pentagon, security dilemma and arms race followed.
Third, China is laying greater emphasis on its ‘One China’ policy in international negotiations with respect to Taiwan. According to the March 2014 US Congressional report, ‘Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990’, the US’ arms transfers to Taiwan have been significant despite the absence of a defence treaty or a diplomatic relationship resulting in Taiwan ranking fifth (behind Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Australia) in 2008-2011. On 27 March, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense urged the U.S. to stop arms sales to Taiwan immediately as it felt the US’ actions violated the spirit of 1972, 1979 and 1982 China-US joint communiqués.
Fourth, China has picked up squabbles with five neighbouring states over the South China Sea. Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to Berlin, said, “we will not provoke trouble ourselves but we will not fear troubles provoked by others either. When it comes to our sovereignty and territorial integrity we will strongly safeguard these interests.”
Finally, on the diplomatic front, China considers the US’ involvement in maritime issues of Southeast Asia as direct provocation. As Washington pushes forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China is enhancing its ties with the ASEAN, and is establishing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to counter the US’ efforts.
Roots of Discord
The contest between China and the US, touted as rivalry of the 21st century, is a manifestation of ideological clashes of two entirely different world views: the ‘American dream’ and the ‘Chinese dream’.
US President Barack Obama states that the American dream is essentially based on the ideals of liberty, respect for human rights and equality of opportunity to pursue happiness, in his autobiography, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping in his recent UNESCO address outlined the Chinese dream as the “great renewal of the Chinese nation. The Chinese dream is about prosperity of the country, rejuvenation of the nation, and the happiness of the people.”
The differing world views of ‘hope and freedom’ versus ‘great renewal’ are going to be the characteristic features of future contestations.