There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu about the drama in the East China Sea just now.
Again an authoritarian government with a rapidly expanding politicized military is making more and more aggressive noises, in large part in pursuit of its voracious appetite for energy. The U.S., hegemonic power in the Western Pacific since the beginning of the 20th century, is being challenged. Washington again follows a zigzagging policy, all the while protecting freedom of the seas — even for its adversaries.
It was, after all, imposition of the American oil embargo on Japan in the summer of 1941 that was the final tripwire leading to Tokyo’s attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew’s reports of rumors of a surprise attack were discounted. When it came, of course, the U.S. — despite an overwhelming majority opposition until then against a vocal minority adroitly headed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — plunged into a catastrophic worldwide conflict. The U.S. saved the world from unprecedented organized bestiality, ultimately winning against initial odds.
Like all historical comparisons, this one is full of holes.
Still, a search for possible/probable oil and gas deposits is the main incentive for Beijing’s snowballing claims on its aquatic periphery. UN specialized agencies estimate China’s energy consumption by 2035 will grow by 50% to 1.8 times that of the United States (now at about one-fifth of world consumption). That estimate may be exaggerated, considering China’s declining economic activity after two decades of unprecedented growth.
Nevertheless, much of a probable gigantic increase — given its already 1.3 billion people, four times the American population — will have to be imported. That’s despite exploitation of China’s large if poor coal reserves, limited possibilities for China from the U.S.’ shale revolution because of water shortages, exploitation of Tibetan rivers’ hydro potential despite endangering flow to most of South Asia, and significant solar and wind efforts largely based on American technology.
A solution to China’s problems could come from Russia’s vast reserves in Siberia, old Chinese claims there temporarily muted by Beijing. But despite frequent announcements of impending new agreements, China’s conversation with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin has channeled the old George Bernard Shaw gibe at Lady Astor, “Your profession has been established, Madame, it’s the price we are discussing.” Ras’ Putin’s energy potential is handicapped with high costs, insufficient reinvestment in infrastructure, and foreign investors wary after partial expropriation of their East Asian Sakhalin finds after they brought on production at huge cost.
Moscow’s industrial strategy is so muddled now that China has just made a deal to import Russian crude through a new pipeline to Central Asian producers. Another new Chinese pipeline to bring Burmese (and Mideast) crude, skirting the Malacca Straits chokepoint to remote southwest China, is threatened with a flare-up of the long-simmering northern Burma Kachin revolt.
In other words, China’s energy future is precarious at best.
True, Chinese Communist leadership tries to use jingoistic appeals to its long-suffering 200-year history of Western and particularly bloody Japanese aggression to justify claims on the farthest — albeit brief – historical reaches of imperial China. But nationalism, for all its notoriety — from the May 4th (1919) Movement of young intellectuals demanding modernization to Sun Yat Sen’s Republican campaign against the last “foreign” (Ch’ing or Manchu) imperial dynasty — is limited to a Westernized elite. It is not the force that for a millennium brought near total destruction to warring European nation states. Like the Indians, the Chinese — despite the contemporary explosion of communication — live in a parochial culture largely baring comparisons outside their own vast spectrum of language, ethnicities and race.
Bottom line: China’s new claims on virtually all the seas around it are largely economically motivated. But their drive to become a blue water naval power to advance those claims not only challenges their neighbors but inevitably the U.S.
For despite the Obama Administration’s aspirations for “leading from behind”, it’s the U.S. Navy which guarantees international freedom of the seas with America’s vast military expenditures, larger than the combined military budgets of its leading allies and contenders. The irony, and one about which Beijing has no illusions, is that it is Washington that insures China’s growing lifeline to its aggressive grabs at Mideast, African and Latin American oil. Even if China follows Japan’s successful search for modernization — as it always does — to go for “fire ice”, the vast methane hydrate deposits prominent in East Asian deep waters, it needs a claim. That’s what it is now staking.
This Chinese pursuit of more and more extravagant boundaries — even to the point of damaging its short-term strategies such as cultivating anti-Japanese, anti-U.S. feeling in South Korea to prevent the consolidation of “an Asian NATO” — may be as subtle as some believe. That is, by making outrageous demands then backing off, Beijing ends up exploiting well-known American impatience and the nervousness of the Japanese and smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. Or, more likely to some observers, these new thrusts represent a less studied Chinese strategy than they do a struggle over the loosening hold of Communist civilians over its traditional Siamese twin, the People’s Liberation Army.
Either way, the Obama Administration — just as the Roosevelt Administration in the late 30s — is giving off mixed signals.
It was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, in 2012, ostentatiously launched the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia”: in her article “America’s Pacific Century” in the flashy Foreign Policy. Not that most American international affairs wonks had an argument against the general thesis: developing Asia would increasingly change the world balance of power and Washington ought to shake some off the dust of the Middle East and pitch toward the unknown role a renascent China seemed more than eager to play.
But some of us wondered at the time if the Mideast curtain would be so easily closed, and whether Washington wasn’t underestimating the Chinese challenge. Nor was it clear how the U.S. Navy was to honor its enlarged task with numbers of ships at a pre-World War I level. Granted, increased technology — one has only to look at the drone revolution — compensates for tonnage in any new strategic environment. But that marvelous seagoing monster the USS George Washington neither can be in two places at one time nor is there no limit to its projection of power.
That can only mean a dubious worldwide strategic vacuum entails.
Alas! Not only did that Mideast tar-baby’s sticky hold turn out to be minimized, but a new Chinese-Japanese dispute over rocky atolls between them — coming out of nowhere on the Chinese side — has befuddled Washington. The Obama presidency has said the U.S. recognizes their longtime Japanese occupation. It has no alternative: in the 1971 Washington-Tokyo agreement returning Okinawa to Japan, an accompanying map includes the rocks along with islands south of that important East Asian American base. This chain, along with the Japanese archipelago itself and Taiwan, is the island barrier the Chinese naval power must finesse to reach trans-Pacific significance.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has just reiterated the proposition that the American-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, the keystone of American strategy in East Asia since the 1950s, covers these islets. But at the same time, Foggy Bottom spokesmen keep repeating the inanity Washington does not recognize Japanese sovereignty.
When China announced its most recent seaside ploy, incorporating most of the territory between China and Japan and South Korea incorporated into its “air defense zone”, the Obama Administration, uncharacteristically, sent unarmed B-52s zooming through it as an in-your-face denial of China’s claims. But then it promptly turned around and first suggested, then ordered American airlines flying through the area to signal Beijing prior to transiting. Thus, in effect, Washington recognized Beijing’s claim. Furthermore, it came just hours after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had ordered three Japanese airlines to withdraw their earlier acceptance of just such a procedure. There is a hint that Washington didn’t even tell Abe, our principal Asian ally, that the turnabout was coming.
Beijing’s game is a dangerous one. Having U.S., Japanese and Chinese military aircraft in more than usual juxtaposition in a relative small area, even up in the air, and naval craft also involved, is scary. Chinese communications, much of it built on stolen American intellectual property, are probably better now than they were in the 2001 Hainan incident. Then a cowboy Chinese fighter pilot killed himself when he scraped an unarmed American surveillance plane over international waters. Circumstantial evidence indicated Beijing wasn’t running the show, that the locals were out of control, and the foreign ministry was ill informed. A rather naïve retired admiral, the U.S. ambassador, told newsmen he couldn’t understand why his old friends in the Chinese military weren’t returning his calls. The Chinese saved face by forcing the U.S. plane down, then returning its crew — and the plane, literally in pieces. But it was not an attractive template for the kind of international disputes that could now erupt at any moment.
The rest of Asia is now holdings its breath, waiting for an episode or for the Chinese to back off, now that Obama has made major concessions. Hopefully, and there are plenty of signs, U.S. military and intelligence collaboration, especially with Japan but increasingly, again, with old Southeast Asia allies, is growing in view of the Chinese threat. It’s apparently without much White House input, perhaps luckily.
And, yeah! Everyone can take reassurance from the dispatch of Vice President Uncle Joe Biden on a swing through the area.