Event ReportsPublished on Jan 31, 2014
In the face of China's growing assertiveness, the United States' policy toward potential flashpoints is certainly going to play an important role in determining America's role in the Asia-Pacific, according to experts.
US policy towards potential flashpoints in Asia Pacific may determine US role

In the face of China’s growing assertiveness, the United States’ policy toward potential flashpoints is certainly going to play an important role in determining America’s role in the Asia-Pacific, according to experts during a discussion at Observer Research Foundation on China’s growing assertiveness in the region and the implications this might have for US policy.

In this context, the military component of the "rebalance" toward Asia was also highlighted during the discussion (on January 31, 2014), initiated by Dr. Stephen Mackinnon, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Centre for Asian Studies at the Arizona State University.

However, there was noticeable criticism for the projection of US-China relations as a "new-type" of relationship. The criticism focused upon the growing perception, especially amongst Chinese intellectuals and media, of Beijing being afforded a "privileged relationship" with Washington. Furthermore, the discussion contemplated whether this privileged relationship furthered the idea of Chinese ascension in the face of an American decline.

The domestic politics in China featured prominently during the course of the discussion. Assessing the emergence of a ’populist’ and an ’elitist’ faction within the Communist Party of China (CPC), there was a view that President Xi Jinping had possibly overcome a potentially, on-going, power-struggle within the CPC. Giving consideration to the implications of such a scenario, the discussion also focussed on the possibility of push-back against Xi as he attempts to consolidate power.

The complications arising from Xi’s emergence as the leader of the CPC in the midst of an increasingly assertive posture of China was discussed. China’s move away from its traditional low-profile, behind-the-scenes engagement was highlighted as well as its move toward a more proactive approach designed to develop alliances through significant incentives. Drawing historical comparisons, China’s development of its ’new silk road diplomacy’ in Asia and the Indian Ocean region was also highlighted. Furthermore, comparisons were drawn between this new posture and imperial China’s tributary system. In the context of this expanding tributary system, the discussion focussed on the growing uncertainty regarding the Sino-American relationship, one that was characterized as being filled with mutual distrust.

The discussion explored former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s idea of "encouraging China to become a responsible stakeholder" within the framework of the international system as a potential alternative. Looking upon the idea favourably, it was argued that this would not only mitigate the potential for conflict, but also strengthen institutions and thus, further American interests in the region.

The discussion went on to examine the importance of the South China Sea in the context of American policy considerations. Apart from the United States’ strong security relationship with a host of states in the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the importance of the region as a whole in Washington’s grand strategy was discussed. Given the significant amounts of shipping that transits through the Strait of Malacca, the United States’ interests in maritime stability in the region are critical to policy formulation. Thus far, Washington has attempted to strengthen regional institutions and encourage further work on the development of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The discussion also assessed the United States’ policy with regard to the Senkaku islands. The obligatory importance of these islands in determining US policy in the region was highlighted. In this regard, the United States’ obligation, under the terms of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, to defend Japan in the event of Chinese military action against the Senkaku islands, was discussed.

While discussing China’s recent declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (AIDZ), it was noted that although Washington considers the ADIZ illegitimate, in an effort to avoid escalation, it chose to respect the Chinese ADIZ by asking American civilian carriers to comply with these regulations. Furthermore, the Chinese and Japanese dissatisfaction from the United States’ lack of a firm position on the territorial dispute between the two countries, was also discussed.

Talking about the increasingly prominent anti-Japanese sentiment and surging nationalism, the discussion contemplated the Chinese peoples’ expectations of their leadership to be more aggressive. Additionally, concern was raised over the decentralization of China’s political and military leadership. The possibility of provincial actors escalating tensions without Beijing’s authorization and leading to a conflict would certainly be a cause of concern for US policymakers.

Contemplating a breakout of hostilities between China and Japan, the high probability of a Japanese victory over the Chinese and its potential ramifications were discussed. One of the issues was whether the Chinese leadership would be willing to escalate the conflict, especially in the aftermath of a Japanese victory in a limited confrontation. In such a scenario, under the US-Japan Security treaty, the United States’ involvement would be almost certain and thus, presents further potential for escalation.

(This report is prepared by Pranay Singh Ahluwalia, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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