Japan may have created the impression that it buckled under China’s pressure by releasing a Chinese fishing boat captain involved in a collision near islands that both countries claim. But the Japanese action has helped move the spotlight back to China, whose rapidly accumulating power has emboldened it to aggressively assert territorial and maritime claims against neighbours stretching from Japan to India.
Having earlier preached the gospel of its “peaceful rise,” China is no longer shy about showcasing its military capabilities. While Chinese leaders may gloat over Tokyo’s back-pedalling, the episode – far from shifting the Asian balance of power in Beijing’s favour – has only shown that China is at the centre of Asia’s political divides.
China’s new stridency in its disputes with its neighbours has helped highlight Asia’s central challenge to come to terms with existing boundaries by getting rid of the baggage of history that weighs down all important interstate relationships. Even as Asia is becoming more interdependent economically, it’s getting more divided politically.
China has been involved in the largest number of military conflicts in Asia since 1950, the year both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet began. According to a recent Pentagon report, “China’s leaders have claimed military pre-emption as a strategically defensive act. For example, China refers to its intervention in the Korean War (1950-1953) as the ‘war to resist the United States and aid Korea.’ Similarly, authoritative texts refer to border conflicts against India (1962), the Soviet Union (1969) and Vietnam (1979) as ‘self-defence counterattacks.’ ” All these cases of pre-emption occurred when China was weak, poor and internally torn. So, today, China’s growing power naturally raises legitimate concerns.
Several developments this year alone underline Beijing’s more muscular foreign policy – from its inclusion of the South China Sea in its “core” national interests, an action that makes its claims to the disputed Spratly Islands non-negotiable, to its reference to the Yellow Sea as an exclusive Chinese military zone where Washington and Seoul, respecting the new Chinese power, should discontinue joint naval exercises.
China also has become more insistent in pressing its territorial claims to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, with Chinese warships making more frequent forays into Japanese waters, and to India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh state, with Indian defence officials reporting a sharp spurt in Chinese incursions across the disputed Himalayan frontier and in aggressive patrolling. Beijing also has started questioning New Delhi’s sovereignty over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which it occupies.
Against that background, China’s increasingly assertive territorial and maritime claims threaten Asian peace and stability. In fact, the largest piece of real estate China covets is not in the South or East China Seas but in India: Arunachal Pradesh is almost three times larger than Taiwan.
Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Europe has built its peace on that principle, with a number of European states learning to live with borders they don’t like. But the Chinese Communist Party still harps on old grievances to reinforce its claim to legitimacy and monopolize power – that only it can fully restore China’s “dignity” after a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers.
And through its refusal to accept the territorial status quo, Beijing highlights the futility of political negotiations. Whether it’s Arunachal Pradesh or Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands or even the Spratlys, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims. In doing so, it’s helping to reinforce the spectre of a threatening China. By picking territorial fights with its neighbours, Beijing is also threatening Asia’s economic renaissance. More important, China is showing that it isn’t a credible candidate to lead Asia.
It’s important for other Asian states and the U.S. – a “resident power” in Asia, in the words of Defence Secretary Robert Gates – to convey a clear message to Beijing: After six long decades, China’s redrawing of frontiers must end.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.