Activities in the South China Sea are ramping up tension between the United States and China, with some concern that warfare is possible. As the East Asian economic powerhouse becomes increasingly emboldened, the hierarchy of the nation has warned that conflict between the two nations is inevitable unless the United States adopts a non-interventionist policy. Certainly the relationship between the world’s two largest economies has deteriorated significantly in recent months.
China enhances offensive potential
The Chinese government has indicated that it is now focusing less on the defensive capabilities and more in stepping up its offensive potential, as it becomes increasingly irritated by US manoeuvres in the region. At present, China is significantly building armed force, with the intention of developing the ability to utilize it beyond its own borders.
Central to this process has been the construction of artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands. Despite warnings from the Chinese government, United States military planes last week flew reconnaissance missions over these disputed islands with the aim of better understanding Chinese intentions. Construction in the area includes runways and port facilities that have the potential to house military planes and warships.
United States rhetoric
In response to the warnings from Beijing, that United States secretary of defence, Ashton Carter, was adamant that the US administration would not recognize the artificial islands as no-fly zones controlled by a nation. Carter underlined the determination of the United States to protect the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and that the United States was acting under international convention.
It is debatable whether this particular argument stands up to scrutiny, or whether the United States was really protecting its own interests. Those with a keen interest in geopolitics increasingly see it as inevitable that that United States and China will clash in the coming years. China is part of the increasingly influential BRICS group, a commingled organization of supportive nations which intends to challenge the traditional Anglo-American / EU-NATO political and economic consensus.
BRICS in the wall
The BRICS have already announced plans to develop their own central bank, which would operate outside of the existing Bank for International Settlements superstructure. It is this which could perhaps be cited as the central reason for US interest in the behaviour of China, along with other strategic interests related to the development of the nation as a genuine superpower, as opposed to supposed concern of the sovereignty of the South China Sea region.
Spratly Islands stand-off intensifies
Regardless of this, it would be fair to assert that China’s actions in the South Sea region could be interpreted as inflammatory. According to sources close to China, the nation has no intention of ceasing its construction of the artificial islands in this region, and will similarly not tolerate any interference by what it considers to be external actors. With neither the United States nor China seemingly willing to back down over this issue, there have been suggestions that even a minor incident around these artificial islands could escalate rapidly into full-scale conflict.
Considering the tension in the region, and between the two nations, it is perhaps not surprising that other news stories have emerged which will only add to this diplomatic situation. Considering the South China Sea stand-off, the recent extradition of a Chinese fugitive from the United States is an interesting and valid footnote in the situation.
The individual in question has been named as the most wanted fugitive in China, and is accused of embezzling more than $40 million. According to Chinese state media, Yang Xiuzhu was able to amass a vast fortune in relation to numerous construction projects when operating as a deputy mayor of Wenzhou in east China in the 1990s.
Yang had left China in 2003, but had been detained in the United States after entering the nation with an illegitimate Dutch passport just last year. Yang tops a list of 100 suspects that China wishes to extradite from other nations, and had evidently gone into hiding after learning that she was being pursued by anti-corruption investigators in the world’s most populous nation.
The issue will strengthen Chinese efforts to push for talks on an extradition treaty, which would enable China to boost its prosecution efforts for fugitives across the world. China claims that there are more than 150 economic fugitives currently resident in the United States, and it seeks an agreement on advancing the justice process related to these individuals.
Refusal of the United States to cooperate could naturally increase tensions between the nations. And this would seem to be a fairly likely prospect considering that the US will not wish to appear weak in the face of what it deems to be provocation in the South China Sea. However, its position could be relatively weak with regard to this issue, as the US policy of extradition during both the Bush and Obama administrations – related, of course, to the War on Terror – is extremely well publicized.
Chinese student expulsions and FIFA corruption
Meanwhile, as the highly public story of 15 Chinese students being expelled from a United States University for cheating reaches mass circulation, it has emerged that some 8,000 Chinese students were expelled from American universities last year alone. The enthusiasm that the Chinese government has displayed for advancing higher education in the nation is well-documented, but evidently Chinese students still have some way to go to match their American counterparts.
And relations between the BRICS nations and the United States will hardly be improved by the recent revelations related to the soccer governing body FIFA. With the selection process for both the Russian and Qatari World Cups now open to corruption investigations, the issue has provoked a strong response from the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian supremo has suggested the United States has illegally persecuted people in relation to this investigation, and that the response to an issue was “an obvious attempt [by the United States] to spread their jurisdiction to other countries”.
Chinese defend actions
As the issue continues to cause concerns, China’s ambassador to the United States has strongly defended its actions in the region. Cui Tiankai has attempted to dampen down the situation, while at the same time suggesting that the United States is in the wrong.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Tiankai suggested that the United States had significantly over-reacted to the situation, and that its reconnaissance missions were escalating what is already a tense situation. Tiankai stated that the recent behaviour in the South China Sea, coupled with the rhetoric from the Obama Administration, was souring US-China relations, which he painted as being the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Tiankai cited understanding with trade, global terrorism and climate change as evidence of a positive relationship between the nations, and hoped that regional stability could be achieved in the foreseeable future.
The Stakes in the South China Sea
While it is tempting to see the activity in the South China Sea region in terms of right and wrong, the reality is that two powerful nations are effectively engaged in sabre rattling. This is pretty much an inevitability, as geopolitical analysts have predicted for many years that the United States and China would eventually come to blows as the world’s two most powerful nations and economic forces.
This latest incident is merely a manifestation of this process, and probably shouldn’t lead to an escalated conflict in the region, or in wider theaters. But considering the military might of both nations and the potential consequences of any military conflict, we can only hope that a diplomatic solution is successfully sought.