A microcosmic dispute between the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam (and Taiwan) over the tiny Paracel Island group in the South China Sea is a stand-in for the macrocosmic rivalry between the growing power of China and the U.S.’ reassertion of strength in the region.
Except for the ownership dispute, the Paracel islands — mainly islets and sandbars currently controlled by China — are by themselves nothing of consequence, with no indigenous population, just some Chinese military, a few fishermen, and a small tourist hotel. A recent effort by China to bring in tourists to the islands has drawn Vietnam’s ire. The dispute here is similar to that between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which both countries claim and both countries have put up displays of military might. But it is the larger issue of regional power that really deserves our attention.
Start with this: China is perhaps the world’s fastest rising power; its gross domestic product is number three behind the European Union and the U.S. Its military is rated as second only to that of the U.S.’ (perhaps third, as some observers still put Russia’s military ahead of China’s). As it has grown economically, China has increasingly sought hegemony over surrounding territory. Forbes magazine reports that: “An assertive China is working to push America aside, grab territory from an arc of nations from India in the south to South Korea in the north, and close off the South China Sea so that it becomes an internal Chinese lake.”
China’s growth as a power is bringing it into conflict with US military relationships with Japan and South Korea and in a broader sense, with Vietnam, Indonesia and even Australia and New Zealand. The U.S. response has been a “pivot” to the region, increasing its military presence and moving to strengthen economic ties there. Some see the US in the old school terms of a paper tiger in the region, with a continuously shaky economy and an internal spending dispute, epitomized by the sequester, that will make increased military spending in the Western Pacific difficult. But neither country is backing down and the true balance of power in the region is not well defined.
The Chinese government’s view of the situation is complex and conflicted. On the one hand, the U.S. and the European Union are its two largest trading partners. A major subset of China’s factories is devoted to producing goods for the U.S. market. China also owns about 7% of U.S. debt. But China’s economy, which has been a powerhouse in the early years of this century, is losing steam, with growth slowing unexpectedly in the first three months of the year. An AP story last week noted, “[China’s] economy [in the past three months] grew by 7.7% over a year earlier, down from the previous quarter’s 7.9 percent. That fell short of many private sector forecasts that growth would accelerate slightly to 8 percent.”
The slump in China’s economy, Forbes says, “is leading to a crisis of legitimacy, the legitimacy crisis is causing Beijing to fall back on nationalism and increase friction with its neighbors, and the increased friction is aggravating the country’s economic difficulties.”
Where this leads is unclear, except that it is already having an effect on the situation on the Korean peninsula with China appearing unwilling to rein in the crazies running North Korea. Surely, Beijing cannot relish the idea of armed conflict between North and South Korea, something guaranteed to bring a flood of refugees from the North into China. If the war is big enough, and the South the likely victor, China would have lost its peninsular buffer with the west and have a united, South dominated Korea, directly on its border.
Columnist Zhao Jinglun for China’s official news website China.org.cn says that, “China is unhappy about U.S. deployment of B-2 stealth bombers, B-52 strategic bombers and missile defense system so close to China’s door step.” He adds that while, “the two sides see eye-to-eye that the Korean Peninsula must be nuclear free, peaceful and stable, and that the dispute must be settled through dialogue and negotiation, preferably through six-party talks … It would be naïve to expect imperial America to really change its color.”
In the end, even a grumpier China and a more nervous U.S. are unlikely to come to physical blows. Both are tied too closely to each other economically to allow military conflict to damage their relationship. The bigger risk is for a new sort of Cold War between the U.S. and China, that will take place on a cyber-battlefield. The first shots in that war, hacking, denial of service attacks, probes at each other’s e-infrastructure have already been fired. With the two countries also cyberspace superpowers, such a conflict, if full-blown, would be a doozy.