Is the US building an Anti-China alliance?

October 27, 2010

A top Obama Administration official has said that the US would not hesitate to join hands with other countries in collectively addressing certain Chinese action. The official, however, refuted reports that the

United States is lining up countries against China and this is the main purpose of the Asia trip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beginning on Wednesday.

A variety of countries including the US “have issues with certain Chinese action”, the official said on condition of anonymity adding that the “US will not hesitate” to address the concerns that they have.

“We are not trying to line up a block of countries against China. We are seriously engaged with China. That is why we have the (Chinese) State visit is coming up. But we will consult with the countries on shared issues ranging from South China Sea to non-proliferation to security issues to Burma. It is in the context of our significant engagement across Asia,” the official said.

“The Secretary is not going to the region because of China, she is going to the region to engage China but also to engage other countries in the region, because we have shared interest in Asia,” the official said.

“Our relationship with China is complex, our relationship with China is important. I suspect other countries feel the same way. But this is not about China, this is about our broad engagement in Asia. And we will work with China when we can and we will not hesitate to take issue with China when our interests demand,” the official said.

As China’s economy continues to grow at staggering pace, straining the country’s resources and energy supplies, sea exploration and development is acquiring a new urgency.

In recent years, China has taken steps to strengthen its maritime defence, streamline its complicated system of sea management rights and build up a modern China Coast Guard parallel to those of the United States and Japan.

From Beijing’s point of view, the escalation of recent territorial disputes is entirely due to the United States’ high-profile “re-engagement” with the region. In September, US President Obama held a summit with leaders of the 10-member ASEAN and pledged that the United States will play a “leadership role in Asia”.

“Already Clinton’s declaration about the South China Sea as maritime commons was meant to announce the return of the United States to Asia,” says Liu Ming, Asia researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “The US (government) wants to internationalise an issue that is meant to be resolved between China and relevant parties on bilateral basis. This is not a multilateral matter. Going the US way would make things in the South China sea only more complicated.”

Some are already warning that the re-emergence of the US factor in the region will rob ASEAN of the opportunity to speak with its own voice. The fifth East Asia Summit on October 30 is expected to invite the leaders of Russia and the United States to participate in it starting from 2011. But to Beijing, this welcome extended to “big powers” like the United States and Russia to the region’s decision-making table is a poorly thought out attempt to counterbalance the rise of China.

“The United States is trying to sow mistrust between China and ASEAN,” says Ma Ying of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, cautioning that the region may become entangled in the battle for influence between the two superpowers.

China’s claims over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are part of a broader claim to the Okinawa prefecture, which it said Japan snatched from the Qing dynasty that ruled China in the early 19th century.

When disputes over the rocky isles claimed by both China and Japan boiled over in September, Beijing cancelled diplomatic meetings with Tokyo, cut off the export of rare earth materials upon which Japan depends, and demanded an apology after Tokyo gave in to its demands and released the detained crew of a Chinese fishing trawler.

Beijing also reacted with fury to comments by the Japanese foreign minister describing its retaliatory action as “hysterical”.

Beijing’s anger was palpable too when China’s growing assertiveness over the disputed territories in the South China Sea was countered earlier this year by the United States with arguments about the area being “maritime commons”.

At a July security meeting of Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance that the United States attaches to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, calling it a US “national interest”. In those busy international shipping lanes, there are islets like the Spratlys and the Paracels that are claimed in part or in full by not less than six countries.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi retorted that Beijing considers the South China Sea a “core national interest” and that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”

China’s recent territorial rows have occurred mostly on sea, which illustrates the country’s new push to increase its development space and seek new energy and mineral resources.

In August, Beijing announced that it had dispatched a manned submarine beneath the South China Sea to plant the Chinese flag on the seabed and begin a search for valuable undersea mineral deposits. Not coincidentally, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the Yellow Sea are believed to be sitting on underwater deposits of natural gas too.

China’s emphasis on sea rights is not new, having occurred under the rule of late economic reform architect Deng Xiaoping. Unlike Mao Zedong who waged wars with neighbouring countries on land, Deng stressed the importance of China’s sovereignty and sea rights.


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