South China Sea: Revival of the Cold War and Balance of Power?

08 Feb, 2013    ·   3809

Anu Krishnan analyses recent developments to understand the larger implications of the dispute

Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has digressed from his hardliner approach by extending the olive branch to China over the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. China, however, has chosen to maintain its vigorous stance over the disputed islands. Japan is essentially backed by the US, whose key concern in the Asia-Pacific today is to neutralise the Chinese threat rationale. Does this imply a possible Cold War with tensions building up, and both sides not desiring an escalation of the conflict?

Japan's Goodwill Act?
The SCS has been in turmoil for long, with forces of nationalism threatening regional security. China’s overlapping claims with Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea and Vietnam make it increasingly evident that small nations can trouble big powers in bigger ways than expected. All these nations have overlying claims over the Spratly, Paracel, Dokdo and Diaoyu Islands in the SCS with China. China has remained active - militarily and politically – with its growing power and ambitions inevitably translating into military power. Its aggressive stance on territorial issues, supplemented by its defence modernisation, is a matter of paramount concern for the regional powers. Japan’s softened approach of seeking negotiations by sending a message of goodwill to Beijing was prompted by the US. However, it does not suggest a withdrawal of Japan’s claims on the disputed Senkaku Islands.

The Role of the US
China’s dynamic stance has prompted the other regional powers to seek counterbalancing strategies. Enhancing their maritime security ties is one way to achieve stability; the other is to link themselves to the other big power in the background, the US. This essentially provides ground for Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy. It is a response to China’s growing force, a strategy to secure allies in the region to engage with, both economically and politically. The US position is thus consolidated in the region. In former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words, “This (pivot) has been about creative diplomacy.”

Three of the nations engaged in territorial disputes with China are strategic partners of the US. The US-Japan partnership has been revitalised; the US keenly looks upon Vietnam as an important strategic partner and the US-Philippines’ relations have been steadfastly improving in the last few years. Mutual Defence Treaties signed separately with Japan and Philippines hold the US duty-bound to intervene in case of an offence. Manila has already conveyed that it expects Washington to come to its aid, if the conflict were to escalate.

Obligations in this regard, and its own interests in the region, have drawn the US into playing a pivotal role in the region. It is in the country’s interest to not let the conflict escalate. Peace and growth in East Asia are the essentials of the pivot. While on one hand the priority is to counter an assertive China, the US does not want to risk losing entry into an integrated trading economy that China would facilitate. There is an uneven balance of security and economy.

The US, however, will not detract its attention on the Asia-Pacific. Too much is at stake, economically and on the security front. An absence of US presence and support would prevent the threatened nations from making decisions free of coercion, which would subsequently result in increased Chinese aggression and assertion in the region. As long as this policy stays, the US will be looked upon for security and protection by the states threatened by China’s power and might. These circumstances lead one to suspect the revival of a Cold War-like scenario.

Semblance of the Cold War
The patrolling, flexing of military muscle and water shows being demonstrated in the SCS will probably continue for a long time. The deliberate attempts at avoiding armed conflict and simultaneously being assertive invokes strong tensions between China and other contending nations. A parallel can be drawn to the arms race of the Cold War. Both the blocs then, were aware of the catastrophic results of a nuclear war and hence, restricted themselves to building their arms stockpile. The purpose remained the same - to exhibit their might.

Balance of power was an integral part of the Cold War. The NATO and Warsaw Pact were created in attempts to maintain a bipolar balance of power. Similarly, alliances across continents are being sought as a means to balance power against China. The US-Japan alliance is being invigorated; it has been recognised by Shinzo Abe’s government as the key aspect to maintaining stability in East Asia. Defence cooperation between the two countries is under review for improvisation. Abe is also dedicated to strengthening Japan’s military, with renewed attention to Japan’s military budget. Its strong assertion for its right to collective self-defence has made Chinese officials apprehensive.

The meeting of the heads of State of the US and Japan in Washington a few weeks ago sent across a strong message to China. Regional alliances are also strengthening themselves in an attempt to balance China. Japan and the Philippines have vouched to enhance their maritime security and presence in the SCS. These events seem to suggest the possibility of increased tensions, culminating in a new Cold War, with features consistent with the present security environment.