• China’s push for sea power clashes with fundamental U.S. strategic doctrine in Asia
  • Korea and the South China Sea are only two of many potential flashpoints
  • Multiplying local conflicts on China’s periphery increase the risk of a bigger war

Last Sunday, Rex Tillerson completed his first trip as secretary of state to Asia. The three-country swing took him to Japan and South Korea before wrapping up in Beijing.

In Seoul, he ran head-on into the conflict with North Korea. The United States and South Korea are staging their annual joint military exercises, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sees as a provocation. Missile tests and threatening rhetoric ensued from Pyongyang, prompting Secretary Tillerson to warn that “all options are on the table” – including a preemptive strike at North Korea.

The Korean peninsula is an area where U.S. and Chinese interests clash directly, meaning that Mr. Tillerson was facing an early test of relations with Beijing.

In addition to North Korea, the superficial impression is that the potential conflict areas between the world’s two biggest powers revolve around trade and Chinese claims to the South China Sea. In fact, the tensions are manifold and run much deeper.

Two dogmas

After the implosion of the Soviet Union, the U.S. remained the world’s only hegemonic power for two decades. This position is now being challenged geopolitically, economically and strategically by regional powers with grander ambitions. China is undoubtedly the strongest and the leader of this movement.

Besides its desire to be recognized as an equal by the U.S., China’s priority is secure access to global resources and trade. Beijing also sees itself as entitled to the role of regional hegemon. Neighboring countries should be satisfied with the role of satellites or tributaries, in keeping with the historic Chinese perception.

Turning its neighbors into dependents is crucial to China’s central strategic aim

Turning its neighbors into dependents is crucial to China’s central strategic aim: gaining unfettered access to the oceans and therefore to resources and trade.

Beijing has yet to achieve this goal, mainly because Asian countries want to keep their sovereignty. Accordingly, the U.S has many allies in the region. Together they form an outpost line encircling the Chinese coast, from Korea and the Japanese home islands in the north, through Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines, and on to Singapore and Australia in the south.

From the standpoint of U.S. military doctrine, this cordon is extremely important as a first line of maritime defense, far from North American shores. Just as direct Russian access to the North Atlantic is deemed unacceptable for American security, so is free Chinese access to the Pacific. The U.S. does not want to risk a second Pearl Harbor.

Here we see a collision of two dogmas – the U.S. strategy of forward defense and China’s need for free access to the oceans.

Two Koreas

The Korean Peninsula became a quasi-colony of Japan in 1910. After the Japanese defeat in World War II, the part north of the 38th parallel was occupied by the Soviet Union, became communist and has been ruled ever since by the Kim dynasty. South Korea evolved from the U.S. occupation (1945-1948) through a series of sometimes authoritarian presidential governments into what is now a prosperous democracy, closely allied to the U.S.

In 1950, North Korea attacked the South with the support of communist China. Thanks to the United Nations military intervention led by the U.S., South Korea was saved after three years of bloodshed. But technically, the two Koreas remain at war.

A U.S.-Japanese carrier task forces on exercises in the East China Sea
A combined U.S.-Japanese task force led by the nuclear supercarrier USS George Washington and the frigate JDS Kirishima on annual joint exercises in the East China Sea (source: dpa)

North Korea is now a global enfant terrible, a nuclear-armed dictatorship ruled by a crazy tyrant.

Kim Jong-un’s regime is unloved by the Chinese authorities but under their protection. Beijing regards the possibility of Korean reunification with horror, because it would position an American ally directly on its border. Although the Chinese leadership is deeply annoyed and embarrassed by North Korea’s nuclear posturing, they will continue to offer protection. The rule of the Kim dynasty provides their best guarantee against reunification.

By itself, North Korea is not very dangerous. Mr. Kim knows perfectly well that he can threaten and annoy all he wants, but he would be immediately annihilated should he launch nuclear-armed missiles at South Korea, Japan or the U.S. The danger is that his provocations could goad one or more of his stronger adversaries into action, which would bring on a direct confrontation with China.

East China Sea

Besides China, the strongest power in East Asia is Japan. Historically the Japanese have always resisted Chinese claims of hegemony. Tokyo embraced a purely defensive military doctrine after World War II, but that orientation changed just a few years ago. The reason was China’s increasing assertiveness and territorial disputes over islands in the East China Sea. Japan has not only been a firm ally of the U.S. since 1945, but has quietly become Asia’s preeminent naval power, with capabilities that still outstrip China’s.

Tokyo embraced a purely defensive military doctrine, but that orientation changed years ago

To the south is Taiwan, where the Chinese national government and army took refuge after losing the civil war to the communists in the late 1940s. For a long time, the West recognized the authorities in Taipei as China’s sole representative, while the Soviet Union and its satellites recognized Beijing. This changed in the 1970s, when nearly every country in the world, including the U.S., acknowledged Beijing as the legitimate government of one China.

De facto, however, Taiwan remains a separate state, with a thriving democracy, an advanced economy and a strong military. While it does not enjoy diplomatic recognition, Taiwan is a global trading power and a key defense partner of the U.S.

South China Sea

Perhaps the most crucial link in the chain around China is the South China Sea. This vital navigational route, which carries the bulk of Asia’s seaborne trade, lies between China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. For historical reasons, but against international law, China has laid claim to almost the entire sea as part of its territorial waters under the so-called “nine-dash line.” To back these pretensions up, China has occupied two uninhabited archipelagos – the Paracels and the Spratlys – converting their reefs and shoals into artificial islands, with air and naval bases.

These moves infringe upon the territorial and economic rights of neighboring countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. The U.S. has responded by sending frequent naval patrols to enforce freedom of navigation in international waters.

Chinese H-6K bomber overflys Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea
Chinese H-6K heavy bomber on combat air patrol over Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef in the South China Sea that is also claimed by the Philippines (source: dpa)

The Vietnamese intend to defend their maritime rights, but especially their independence. While they feel threatened by China, they want to avoid getting too close to the U.S. Vietnam has a long military tradition and effective armed forces, which have started cooperating with India and Japan.

The Philippines, on the other hand, have blown hot and cold since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016. Mr. Duterte has pledged to realign his country geopolitically, loosening ties with the U.S. and increasing security cooperation with China and Russia. He has called for a halt to joint naval patrols with the U.S. and is negotiating directly with Beijing on the South China Sea. However, it is far from certain that Mr. Duterte has the political support or staying power to make good on his promises, or whether China trusts him as a partner.

Indian Ocean

But China is not just interested in exercising hegemony in its own neighborhood. Following the logic of a global power, it also wants to establish a strong presence in the Indian Ocean. Beijing not only desires to protect its trade and investment interests in Africa, but also to safeguard the all-important shipping routes to the Middle East and Europe.

To achieve these ends, the Chinese are now constructing naval bases and freight terminals at several Indian Ocean ports, including Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti at the entrance to the Red Sea. They are also building rail and road connections from Western China to Pakistan, terminating at Gwadar.

While these activities preoccupy Washington, in New Delhi they are seen as a direct threat. India remains locked in an armed conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, and is also sparring with China over two disputed territories.

Flashpoints everywhere

This quick geopolitical survey illustrates the situation on China’s perimeter. Along a 6,000-mile arc, conflicts are brewing. Treated in isolation, none of them is particularly threatening. But taken together, they multiply the possibility of a violent outbreak that could lead to diplomatic and military escalation.

Military activity along this rim is already intense. China is constantly improving and expanding its armed forces, while the U.S. recently installed its latest Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. While the deployment was in response to North Korea missile drills, Beijing treated it as a hostile move. The Chinese authorities responded with a harsh warning from Prime Minister Li Keqiang and retaliatory measures against South Korean businesses.

China’s need for maritime access is legitimate, but conflicts with the more legitimate claims of other Asian states

In the Indian Ocean, the U.S., Japan and India will hold their annual “Malabar” naval exercises in July. As part of that drill, Japan will be sending its largest warship – the 27,000-ton helicopter carrier Izumo – on a three-month voyage through the South China Sea, beginning in May. It will be the biggest show of naval force in the region since World War II.

The fact that a warship from Japan, an ancient enemy, will sail through the South China Sea is considered as a huge provocation by China. Since the Chinese authorities regard the seaway as their own home waters, their response will be interesting.

Taiwan buys all its military equipment from the U.S. and has strongly increased its defense budget this year. To Beijing’s dismay, President Donald Trump has already spoken directly with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, indicating even stronger American recognition for the island country. That could signal the new administration in Washington is ready to abandon the One-China policy – an absolute no-go area for Beijing.

These are only a few powder kegs in a well-stocked magazine. Further provocations and incidents occur daily.

China’s need for free access to the oceans is legitimate, but conflicts with the even more legitimate claims of other Asian states to territorial and international waters. It also collides with the U.S. determination to deny any potential big power rival unrestricted access to the high seas – a doctrine detrimental to China, but beneficial to the rest of Asia. Naturally, Beijing resents being bottled up and contained.

Nobody wants war. However, accidents happen. The sheer accumulation of conflicts in Asia has become worrying.

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