Made in Beijing: An Anti-China Alliance Emerges

Concerns over increased Chinese assertiveness are leading to greater security cooperation between America's Asian allies.

Recognizing the gravity of the deepening crisis in the South China Sea, the world’s leading western powers have begun to speak out. During their latest summit in Germany, the Group of Seven (G7) leaders underlined the “importance of peaceful dispute settlement as well as free and unimpeded lawful use of the world's oceans,” and expressed how they “strongly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force, as well as any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo, such as large-scale land reclamation [author’s own emphasis].” Obviously, it was too diplomatically provocative to explicitly name China, but it was pretty clear which country the Western leaders had in mind.

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Over the past eighteen months alone, China has reclaimed 810 hectares on a whole host of dispute reefs and rocks, which, in the words of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, is "more than all other claimants’ [construction activities] combined...and more than in the entire history of the region.” Just a few months ago, America’s leading European allies broke the siege on and joined as founding members of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), leaving the Obama administration in embarrassing isolation. But the profound strategic implications of China’s mind-boggling construction activities across disputed waters, which may eventually impact freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most important waterways, is beginning to dawn on the horizons of geographically distant Western powers.

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For long, European powerhouse Germany, which has enjoyed robust trade and investment relations with China, adopted a pragmatic position of neutrality on Beijing’s destabilizing actions in adjacent waters. China, after all, is among a select number of countries that has a strategic partnership with Germany. And it was exports to China that primarily kept Germany out of the recessionary whirlpool during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its increasingly overt interference in the civil war in eastern Ukraine, Germany has been compelled to adopt progressively more forceful language on international security issues. Germany is gradually joining the rank of Gestaltungsmächte (shaping powers) to bring about a semblance of Ordnung (orderliness) in the global hotspots.

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Among the G7 powers, it is Japan, however, that is most directly affected by China’s maritime assertiveness. Tokyo is not only locked in a bitter territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea, but is also deeply alarmed by the prospects of de facto Chinese domination of the South China Sea, where the bulk of Japan’s energy imports pass through. Eager to seize the strategic initiative, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s most charismatic leader since Junichiro Koizumi, has directly reached out to like-minded claimant states such the Philippines, which is in the midst of taking the unprecedented decision to grant Japanese Self Defense Forces access to its military bases. Japan’s prospective entry into the South China Sea theatre represents a potentially game-changing development, overhauling the whole architecture of Tokyo’s postwar foreign policy.

Winter is Coming

The United States and its allies are concerned over the prospects of a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which may allow Beijing to dominate the seascape and airspace in the South China Sea—and gradually drive other claimant states out of the area. The Chinese Foreign Ministry as well as the deputy chief of the General Staff Department of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Admiral Sun Jianguo, have openly expressed China’s openness to imposing an ADIZ in the South China Sea. China’s latest white paper, which underlines the PLA’s commitment to “offshore waters defense and open seas protection,” has only deepened the sense of alarm in the region.