How China gains from a U.S.-Russia face-off

Japan Times, March 8, 2014

us-russiaThe U.S.-backed putsch that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and triggered the Russian military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula has shifted the international spotlight from Asia’s festering fault lines and territorial feuds to the new threat to European peace. The crisis over Ukraine cannot obscure Asia’s growing geopolitical risks for long.

In fact, the clear geopolitical winner from the U.S.-Russian face-off over Ukraine will be an increasingly muscular China, which harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by other Asian states. Whether it is strategic islands in the East and South China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

China will gain significantly from a new U.S.-Russian cold war, just as it became a major beneficiary from America’s Cold War-era “ping-pong diplomacy,” which led to President Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Mao Zedong in 1972 in an “opening” designed to employ a newly assertive, nuclear-armed China to countervail Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has followed a conscious policy to aid China’s rise — an approach that remains intact today, even as America seeks to hedge against the risk of Chinese power sliding into arrogance.

A new U.S.-Russian cold war will leave greater space for China to advance its territorial creep in Asia.

Asia’s geopolitical risks were highlighted recently by the comments of both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who noted that Britain and Germany went to war in 1914 despite being economically interdependent in the same way Japan and China now are — and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III, who compared China’s territorial creep with Nazi Germany’s expansionism.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets.

With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Asia must find ways to get rid of its baggage of history so as to chart a more stable and prosperous future.

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Just as Russia’s Crimean intervention challenges that principle, renewed attempts in Asia to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

Aquino, drawing an analogy between China’s territorial assertiveness and the failure of other powers to support Czechoslovakia against Hitler’s territorial demands in 1938, pointedly asked in a New York Times interview last month: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?”

At the root of the rising Asian geopolitical tensions is the fact that Asia is coming together economically but not politically. Indeed, it is becoming more divided politically. Even as the region’s economic horse seeks to take it toward greater prosperity, its political horse is attempting to steer it in a dangerous direction.

This dichotomy is a reminder that economic interdependence and booming trade by itself is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between states. Unless estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to stabilize their relationship.

The slowing of Asian economic growth underscores the risks arising from this fault line. The risks are heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

That the risks posed by Asia’s new fault lines are serious can be seen from the situation that prevailed in Europe 100 years ago. Europe then was even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I.

Abe, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was thus right to warn that economic interdependence cannot by itself prevent war. But by implicitly comparing China with pre-1914 Imperial Germany, Abe sought to gain the moral high ground by depicting Japan as a democratic state that, like Britain a century ago, is seeking to checkmate the expansionist ambitions of a rapidly rising authoritarian power.

The paradox is that China, with its aggressive modernization strategy, appears to be on the same path that made Japan a militaristic state a century ago, with tragic consequences for the region and Japan itself.

Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) created a powerful military under the national slogan “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military.”

The military eventually became so strong as to dictate terms to the civilian government. The same could unfold in China, where the generals are becoming increasingly powerful as the Communist Party becomes beholden to the military for retaining its monopoly on power.

China only highlights the futility of political negotiations by overtly refusing to accept Asia’s territorial status quo. After all, frontiers are significantly redrawn not at the negotiating table but through the use of force, as China has itself demonstrated since 1949.

Yet, U.S. President Barack Obama’s repeated warnings to Moscow over Crimea, including holding out the threat to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically, contrasts starkly with his silence on China’s aggression, including its seizure of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal, and its establishment of an air-defense zone extending to territories it covets but does not control.

Obama has not said a word on these Chinese actions, even though they targeted U.S. allies, the Philippines and Japan. Unlike Ukraine, these are countries with which the United States has mutual defense treaties.

Obama’s “pivot” to Asia —rebranded as “rebalancing” — remains more rhetorical than real.

Make no mistake: Asia’s resurgent territorial and maritime disputes underscore that securing Asian peace and stability — like in Europe — hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders. Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Asian Juggernaut.”