The Ultimate Irony: Is China the 'America' of Asia?

Beijing’s claims in Asia look extravagant, however, they are as valid as those made by the United States against Mexico and Great Britain in the mid-19th century.

The rising nation was full of self-confidence and determined to expand. Its neighbor refused to negotiate in a bitter territorial dispute, convinced there was no legitimate issue to discuss. The new entrant to the international order also challenged the world’s greatest global power, which was forced to decide whether war could be justified against a country thousands of miles from home. The upstart’s territorial claims were excessive, but no one desired a rerun of past conflicts.

The year was 1845. The United States had absorbed Texas after the latter’s violent secession from Mexico; Washington demanded its neighbor’s acquiescence not only to the errant territory’s annexation but also to a new national boundary set well beyond Anglo settlements. The United States backed its position with provocative military maneuvers, occupying disputed territory. War soon resulted.

Around the same time Washington took an equally truculent position in dealing with Great Britain over the far western boundary between America and Canada. Where prior agreements had left ambiguity, the United States saw certainty. Some Americans proclaimed “54-40 or fight,” wanting to push the Oregon border up to the Russian territory (Alaska) later sold to the United States. The Polk administration took a less extreme position and London accommodated the arrogant juvenile nation, a necessary step in ultimately developing the “special relationship” between onetime enemies.

Today Beijing’s actions in the East Asian waters have a similar feel. The international and regional order is under strain as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become an economic colossus with growing military might and diplomatic influence. Control of islands offer resource ownership and maritime primacy, encouraging the PRC to assert territorial claims once considered impractical or worthless.

Although America’s military remains supreme, the U.S. presence no longer intimidates. Beijing has become increasingly assertive, even truculent. Analysts spin scenarios in which America and China end up at war over some “damn fool thing” in the western Pacific rather than the Balkans, as was the case in World War I.

The waters of East Asia are filled with islands, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku, Nansha/Spratly, and Xisha/Paracel Islands, as well as Huangyan Island/Scarborough Reef.  (For simplicity’s sake I will use the latter names, more familiar in the United States)  The PRC claims all (and Taiwan, many) of these isles. Asserting a variety of opposing claims are Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Washington is not a claimant, but has sparred with China over the U.S. Navy’s legal right to engage in intelligence gathering within China’s 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). More important, America has a formal military alliance with Japan which, the president declared, covers disputed territories under Tokyo’s control. Japan recently revised its defense guidelines to improve bilateral cooperation against the PRC (in contrast, Tokyo promised little assistance for U.S. security objectives). Washington’s military relationship with Manila is looser, but Philippine officials are seeking a similar territorial guarantee. The United States also views herself as the globe’s dominatrix into whose hands every dispute is properly remitted.

The Obama administration has escalated U.S. involvement by sending American aircraft over islands reclaimed by China and discussing joint patrols with Japanese aircraft. The United States and China resolved peacefully but not entirely smoothly the problems surrounding the crash-landing of the EP-3 spy plane in 2001 and subsequent maritime incidents. A future clash could pose greater challenges.

None of the claims generating so much controversy is worth war. China is carefully using “salami-slicing tactics,” successively grabbing small pieces of a larger whole to avoid a conflict. But who is prepared to fight even for the larger whole?

Most of the islands or islets are intrinsically worthless and provide little security value. Maritime rights are affected, but in peacetime the difference wouldn’t matter so much; in wartime everything would depend on the capabilities of the contending navies. The economic benefits from control could be substantial but still relatively small compared to the sizable economies of most of the claimants. Peaceful joint development would release whatever hydrocarbons lurk beneath the territory’s surface at less cost and little risk.

For many, if not all of the countries involved in the territorial disputes, national ego rather than juridical niceties is the primary issue. It is good when the latter coincide with the former, but as the young American republic demonstrated 170 years ago, facts often mean little in territorial disputes. Legal rights depend on a complex interplay of national history and control, international law and treaty. Beijing’s extravagant claims look, well, extravagant, but they are not without varying degrees of legitimacy. They certainly are as good as those made by the United States of America against Mexico and Great Britain.