Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘China’

US set to escalate tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea

If reports this week are anything to go by, the US is sending strong signals it is about to take a more aggressive approach to China in the South China Sea – and if it does send its warships and aircraft to challenge China’s maritime claims, it can only mean at best a deterioration in relations and at worst a dangerous escalation of tension with Beijing.

It is probably no coincidence these media reports came just before US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrives in China for talks with his team promising a tough line over Beijing’s actions in the Sea, though Kerry can also expect intense questioning over his country’s intentions there.

In the past few years, China has upped the assertion of its extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea – defined by the “nine-dash line” first established by Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist state in 1947.

Beijing has historical claims to some of the islands and with the growth of the Chinese economy it needs to guarantee the security of its energy imports from the Middle East through the Sea and also has the means to do so as it can afford to build up its navy, coast guard and air force.

This has led to confrontation with the Philippines and Vietnam, which lay claim to some of the same islands and coral reefs.

Since President Obama initiated his pivot – or rebalancing – to Asia in 2011, the focus has seemed to be on ensuring strengthened US economic integration in the world’s most dynamic region with Washington concentrating on expanding and sealing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

So far the pivot has had a relatively modest military component with plans to establish a base for marines in Australia and the recent agreement to deepen defence cooperation with Japan.

But we have also seen opportunistic diplomatic and military support for Manila and Hanoi who – in what is something of a diplomatic setback to China – have looked to Washington for help in their disputes with Beijing.

These American moves, added to the exclusion of China from the proposed TPP, have led many in China to suspect the US of trying to contain Beijing – much as the US had confronted the Soviet Union with its containment policy during the Cold War.

So if the US does now adopt a more aggressive policy by using its own ships and aircraft to directly challenge Beijing’s claims by sailing or flying right up to the twelve mile nautical limit around Chinese controlled islands, this will confirm those suspicions and strengthen the hand of those Chinese policy-makers who advocate a tougher approach to Washington.

The reports that the US is “considering” using its own military to challenge China’s claims follows a plethora of reports in the media that Beijing is building artificial islands on coral reefs to support airfields and docks in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

Importantly, under international maritime law territorial claims can be based on the area around islands but not coral reefs, which are submerged much of the time.

The apparent leaking by the Pentagon of its strategic thinking may in itself be intended to deter China, but if it is, then judging by Beijing’s reaction so far it has been counterproductive.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday: “China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, (and) avoid taking any risky and provocative actions…”

So how will China respond if US does more than say it is considering taking action?

If Beijing’s approach to its dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a guide, you can expect to see Chinese ships and aircraft intercepting their American counterparts which will increase the chances of an accidental clash – it has happened before when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off Hainan in 2001 killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to land in China where it was dismantled for its secrets before being returned in boxes.

But this is 14 years later and Beijing’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping is much more prepared to assert what they see as China’s key interests – added to which China’s military capabilities are much greater than they were then.

So the Americans would be playing a dangerous game. It is also a puzzling one given the recent US push to improve military to military communication and understanding with Beijing.

With the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine pulling the US back into the regions it was hoping to disengage from, the Obama Administration has struggled to maintain its focus on Asia and how to engage with China. But it now seems the hawks may be winning the argument in Washington, in which case the legacy of Obama’s Asia Pivot may end up being escalating confrontation with Beijing.

Germany: risking its post WW2 modest image for little gain

When it came to foreign policy, the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised his countrymen to “keep a low profile and achieve something” by which he meant concentrate on the economy and avoid getting involved in disputes.

This week has raised the question – should Germany’s leaders heed Deng’s advice?

On Monday, Chancellor Merkel was in Japan and chose to issue her hosts some of her own advice in dealing with the legacy of Tokyo’s conduct in World War 2 which is still souring relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea.

Ms Merkel’s speech reminded us how much Germans pride themselves on coming to terms with the Nazis’ wartime record and reconciling with their neighbours.

As speculation grows that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may use the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to water down previous Japanese apologies to its neighbours, Ms Merkel took it upon herself to urge the Japanese to follow Germany’s example.

Her hosts were polite and did not give away how they felt about Chancellor Merkel’s comments, but shortly after her speech events back home suggest it may have been wiser to avoid the risk of hubris and keep out of the debate about Japan’s wartime past.

On Wednesday, the very public row between Berlin and Athens over debt escalated with a reminder that perhaps Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of Nazi aggression has not been as successful as it thinks.

The new Greek government is trying to renegotiate the terms of its debt to the rest of the EU and IMF and wants to end the 2010 bailout – largely funded by Berlin – negotiated by its predecessor during the Eurocrisis which mandates economic austerity that Athens says kills any chance for growth.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been using insultingly undiplomatic language to tell his Greek counterpart – with an eye to his own taxpayers – that Berlin has been generous enough already and will not countenance further debt forgiveness.

The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, responded – also with an eye to his political supporters – by reviving claims that Berlin pay reparations for Germany’s harsh wartime occupation.

But instead of trying to emolliate Athens, as German governments of the past might have, the response of Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, was dismissive “the question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.

It is no secret to anyone in Europe that the Eurocrisis means Germany is now the continent’s undisputed political as well as economic leader. Berlin’s traditional policy of hiding its economic strength by letting France take the political lead is no longer viable given current French weakness.

It is also obvious when talking privately to Germans born since 1945 that they are increasingly tired of being reminded of what their grandparents’ generation did and feel others use the Nazi past to justify freeloading on their generosity.

But Germany is now risking undermining its newfound leadership by appearing arrogant and overplaying its hand.

It is not just the Greeks who are beginning to chafe at Berlin’s attitude. There is growing anti-German sentiment in Italy too. Outside the EU, Germany has taken the lead role in pressurising Serbia to accept the secession of Kosovo reviving many Serbs’ historical distrust and resentment of Berlin’s wartime record.

The EU works by consensus and goodwill to build common interests and Germany has prospered since 1945 by pooling sovereignty with its former enemies and appearing unthreatening.

But circumstances change and now demand Berlin take a more active leadership role in Europe because it is the only country economically strong enough to bail out its partners and save the Euro.

However, it is one thing to lead by force majeure and quite another to take people with you.

Germany and the rest of EU face tough enough challenges trying to revive economic growth and ensure the Euro has a future.

If Berlin abandons the modesty that has reassured the rest of the world it no longer harbours the desire to dominate and awakens the ghosts of the past by lecuring others and deliberately reminding its neighbours just how powerful it is, it will make the job of leadership even harder and risk undermining its newfound role before it takes root.


China’s choice: push reunification or build soft power

China’s parliament, the National Peoples’ Congress, has begun its annual session in Beijing and there has been inevitable western press coverage of plans for next year’s defence budget – which is expected to increase by 10%.

Now, depending on what you read this is either a commitment to maintaining high defence spending despite slower economic growth or a cut in the increase in defence spending because of that slowdown.

The headlines and attention now paid to China’s military budget fit into a western narrative, increasingly reflected among China’s neighbours, that its rapidly modernising armed forces are a threat increasingly capable of challenging US military dominance in East Asia.

In order to counter this narrative and reassure its neighbours – and the rest of the world – China describes itself as a rising, but peaceful power, arguing its military modernisation is partly catch-up after years of underspending on the military and partly natural for a country dependent on energy imports and foreign trade for its prosperity.

And to get its peaceful message across, Beijing has invested heavily in soft power tools, spending billions expanding China Central TV’s broadcasts in English and other languages and opening 450 Confucius Institutes around the world teaching Chinese language and culture – it is even trying to create a global pop star, Jia Ruhan, to project a softer image.

Although asserting its maritime claims against the Philippines and Vietnam has undermined these efforts with those countries, Beijing’s global soft power push has continued and involves more than public diplomacy tools.

Soon after taking over the leadership in Beijing two years ago, President Xi Jinping – understanding he needed a national story to tell his own people and the world about what China stands for – articulated what he called The Chinese Dream.

When it comes to constructing an attractive narrative about your country language is crucial and President Xi’s formulation is almost certainly a deliberate echo of The American Dream – a concept which is seen as central to the attractiveness and soft power of the US.

Loosely defined, The Chinese Dream is not only about increasing prosperity for the Chinese people, it is also about national rejuvenation – and an important part of that rejuvenation is to reunify the lands lost to foreign powers during China’s decline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It is here that Beijing faces a dilemma.

The main remaining candidate for reunification is Taiwan and it shows no sign of wanting to return to the fold while the Communist Party continues to run things in China, and Beijing has made it clear that if the island were to declare formal – as opposed to de facto – independence, it would use force to stop it.

And as the delegates to the NPC were gathering in Beijing last week, President Xi returned to this theme with a veiled warning to Taiwanese who want independence .

The problem for Beijing is China’s soft power projection requires the world to see it as benign, so any use of force against Taiwan would have the opposite effect.

It would be widely seen outside China as an act of aggression and probably lead to conflict with the US which has given the island security guarantees.

To avoid this Beijing has been trying to woo Taiwan back into the fold since the 1990s using a combination of trade, investment, diplomacy and tourism, encouraging ordinary Taiwanese to visit their ancestral homes on the mainland.

Beijing has also hoped that the way it handled reunification with Hong Kong and Macao, which were returned to China by Britain and Portugal in the late 1990s, would help its case with Taiwan.

Both former colonies were given special administrative status within the Peoples’ Republic, including a high level of autonomy and the retention of their own legal systems.

But the student-led pro-democracy protests last autumn in Hong Kong show how complicated a balancing act this is for Beijing and the risks to its soft power.

The demonstrations were sparked by plans to extend the franchise for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive so voters would be able to directly elect their leader for the first time. But the catch was that a Beijing-appointed committee would vet the candidates first.

The protests attracted large crowds and lasted weeks, bringing parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill. The Beijing appointed administration stood firm and there were violent clashes between police and protesters which were shown on news broadcasts all over the world.

So a reform which would actually extended democracy in Hong Kong ended up in a setback to China’s image – especially in Taiwan which had seen its own student protests against closer ties with Beijing earlier last year.

De facto, the world has been living with two Chinas since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949 with the defeated forces of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT fleeing to the island, where it continued to be recognised by the US and the UN as the rightful government of China throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Since losing most international recognition after the 1970s when Washington decided to open up to the Peoples’ Republic, Taiwan – or the Republic of China to give it its official name – has become a democracy with one of its major parties, the Democratic Progressive Party, flirting with the idea of de jure independence.

The DPP looks set to win next year’s elections and Mr Xi’s comments last week show how a DPP victory could raise tensions over Taiwan.

But unless Beijing finds a way to resolve the apparent contradiction between projecting a peaceful message towards its neighbours and the world with the threat of force to prevent Taiwanese independence, it will undermine its soft power efforts and find the huge sums it has spent on public diplomacy have been wasted.

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