Increased danger on China’s maritime flank

The USS Lassen conducts naval exercises with the Turkish and South Korean navies in the East China Sea
May 25, 2015: The USS Lassen (front) conducting naval exercises with the Turkish and South Korean navies, south of the Korean Peninsula (source: dpa)

China’s ambition is to be a world power equal to the United States. The Chinese also believe (though they may not always express this clearly) that they should be a hegemonic power with their neighbors dependent on them to a degree equivalent to “tributaries” in ancient times.

As a result, Beijing believes it has territorial claims to vast expanses of the South China Sea and East China Sea. In order to strengthen these claims, it is building artificial islands.

The moves clearly conflict with the interests of neighboring countries, which feel threatened by China. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and especially Vietnam are all resisting China’s push. Non-neighboring countries, particularly the U.S., support their stance. Washington’s goal is mainly to keep shipping lanes free, as well as to maintain a political and military balance. But other powers, such as India and Australia, also have a stake in the region.

Another important issue for China is free access to the oceans, especially when it comes to imports of resources from Africa and South America. Beijing feels constrained by the chain of U.S. allies in the Pacific, from Japan and South Korea in the north to Singapore in the south. In China’s view, this amounts to containment, exacerbated by the strong U.S. naval presence in the region. It is important to note, however, that China’s behavior makes the U.S. presence necessary.

Recently, indications of rising tensions have once again emerged. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed at a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that Russia opposes any involvement from third parties – a clear reference to the U.S. – in the “regional” dispute in the South China Sea. The statements show Russia backs China’s position.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the process of consolidating his power as economic growth in his country slows. Not long ago, the armed forces were put under his direct control.

Vietnam is not officially a U.S. ally – yet – but is very concerned that Chinese activities are jeopardizing its integrity, sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea. This also aligns Vietnam somewhat with India. But most importantly, Vietnam-U.S. relations are growing stronger. U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Hanoi at the end of May, and is mulling putting an end to America’s ban on arms deliveries to Vietnam.

Opposing blocs

Encounters between various navies occur regularly in the region – so far none of these have turned violent, but they frequently have a provocative nature. Two blocs are forming: China and Russia on one side and a U.S.-led group that includes Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam on the other.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Russian resort town of Sochi at the beginning of May. As chair of the G7 he offered signals – without saying it directly – that sanctions against Russia could be lifted. The official reason for the visit was to discuss the countries’ unresolved territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. Nevertheless, a major motivation appears to be the wish to keep Russia from getting too close to China. Success seems doubtful.

As GIS has repeatedly warned (here, here and here) when these two blocs are at loggerheads – especially with the number of additional players involved – the results can be highly explosive. This forecast is now becoming reality. The economic and fiscal problems that all these countries are experiencing exacerbates the situation. Despite their economic difficulties, most of these countries are raising defense spending.

With so much at stake and tensions so high, the smallest inadvertent move could trigger war. The number of players involved multiplies the risk.

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