The Need for US Leadership as China Continues to Exert its Influence in the South and East China Seas

by PSA Staff | January 16th, 2013 | |Subscribe

This article was written by Katherine Ehly and Matthew Hays, two Participants in PSA’s Congressional Partnership Program.  All CPP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Hill Staff who were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.

The Need for US Leadership as China Continues to Exert its Influence in the South and East China Seas

In late 2011 the Obama Administration announced that it would increase America’s visibility in Asia.  These efforts were described by the Administration as a “pivot” or “rebalancing” of U.S. military planning, foreign policy, and economic policy toward the region.  Washington, however, has wrestled with how to engage the most prominent and powerful country in the region, China.  With troops nearly gone from Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan, this shift could not have come at a better time.  As the region has grown more prosperous, the issue of sovereignty over the South and East China Seas has become intense with China exhibiting worrisome acts of aggression toward its neighboring countries.  China, in attempting to control these waters, appears to be demonstrating its intent to exert dominance over the region.

The importance of the South and East China Seas, not only to the region, but to the world cannot be understated.  The waters, especially the South China Sea are among the world’s primary trade routes linking East to the West; a critical passageway for the transit of commercial goods, energy, and military power.  Access to and security of these sea lanes are vital to the transportation of the world’s goods and necessary for U.S. Naval presence in the region.  Furthermore, the South and East China Seas contain an abundance of fish, and potentially significant quantities of oil and gas resources that are already important to the energy needs and economies of all the coastal countries.  China’s increased willingness to use economic coercion, flout international laws and norms, disregard multilateral treaties, and unwillingness to use diplomacy to resolve disputes are all reasons to be concerned with their growing power in the region.

The most acrimonious dispute between China and its neighbors that has the potential to spiral out of control is the disagreement between China, Japan and Taiwan  over a small chain of islands in the East China Sea. Tensions, particularly between China and Japan seem to be at an all time high in the post war era. These uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku islands have been controlled by Japan for over a century. China contends that these islands in fact belong to China and were taken from them by imperial Japan in the late 19th century.  The three remaining islands were recently purchased by Japan from private owners, sparking massive demonstrations in Beijing against Tokyo.  Many Japanese businesses in China were looted, and others had to shut their doors and post signs in the windows claiming support for the Chinese government.  Both nations have sent warships to the area as a show of force.

With both nations whipped up with nationalistic fervor, miscommunication and misunderstanding could have the potential to lead to open conflict.  The United States continues to maintain a robust military force in the region including the US Navy 7th fleet and thousands of troops in Japan and South Korea along with a defense treaty with Japan.  It is feared that any hostilities could easily drag the United States into a wider military confrontation.  However, with its military strength in the region as a backstop, the United States is in a unique position to act as a peace broker in the region.

Recently, outgoing Secretary of Defense Panetta while visiting the region urged all sides to settle their differences in a diplomatic and peaceful manner.  He called upon China to operate in a rules based system.  At the same time, he announced that the US would put an additional missile defense radar system in Japan, and that the US would continue to honor their bilateral treaty obligations.  The Obama Administration seems to be taking an old play from the Reagan Administration, and operating in a “peace through strength” model.   While it is hopeful that cooler heads will prevail and Japan and the other regional players would not want to be embroiled in a war, the United States and the Administration must continue on the path of urging these nations to settle their differences diplomatically, while at the same time increasing their strength and military cooperation with their partners in the region, sending signals that China’s bullish behavior will not be tolerated.

It is yet to be seen whether China will agree to operate inside legal norms.  However, if China’s assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas continues unchallenged, the potential repercussions extend well beyond the region itself.  Freedom of the seas, meaning the ease of passage and access to shipping and transit lanes, could be threatened – hampering international commerce.  Further, acquiescing to Chinese claims of sovereignty would undermine widely accepted guidelines and treaties, weakening the ability of any country to call into question Chinese authority. This would undermine such documents as the Law of the Sea Treaty and establish a troubling legal and practical precedent.  Without the ability to challenge sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas, the security of American allies in East Asia will be called into question, which will have an effect on U.S. international standing as a global leader.

1 Comment »

  1. RedWhiteBlue wrote,

    Beijing derisively laughs at this whistling in the dark.

    The consensus is that Washington simply has no appetite to go to war with China over these pieces of rock. Beijing is prepared to “fully engage” Japan if Abe does not back down, and you can bet dollars to peanuts that things will turn very ugly very fast for the Japanese if the conflict flares. None of the alternatives going from there would be desirable for America: (a) Japan gets wiped out, and there goes the containment; or (b) Japan goes independent and tries to build its military and no longer acts the lapdog. Both would clearly shows how little clothing that emperor has on – there simply is nothing to back up that “pivot” to Asia.

    That is why the SOS had been scolding the Japanese openly, and the administration is warning the Japanese that they better not fire at the Chinese planes.

    Comment on January 19, 2013 @ 2:41 am

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