Tensions between China and the United States continue to escalate after the Washington administration stated it would send military vessels to the South China Sea region. The United States has been concerned about the activities of the world’s most populous nation in the region for some time, but this is the first indication that the Obama administration is ready to act decisively.
US navy sets sail for South China Sea
United States navy vessels are currently being prepared to sale through a 12 nautical mile zone around the disputed Spratly Islands. China has claimed the region as its own territory, despite the fact that numerous other nations also have a stake in the area. There has been concern in Washington about the hawkish strategy of China, as the two countries jockey for geopolitical supremacy. Now it seems certain that the United States is ready to act decisively on the matter, and this can only surely have a negative impact on the relationship between the two nations.
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It is only recently that the Chinese premier Xi Jinping travelled to the United States for a major state visit. The rhetoric that emanated from Jinping during the visit was surprisingly defiant, with the president of the People’s Republic of China strongly defending the right of the Chinese to develop militarily.
There will be some debate among geopolitical analysts as to whether Washington is responding to China in kind, or simply attempting to protect its privileged position of geopolitical dominance. The United States certainly hasn’t been challenged militarily for many years, arguably since the decline of the Soviet Union at the end of what is colloquially referred to as the Cold War.
China responds with rhetoric
Certainly China has already indicated its displeasure about the plans of the United States. Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, commented on the US scheme, requesting for an objective viewpoint of the region from US forces. “We hope the United States can look upon the current situation of the South China Sea from an objective and fair perspective and play a constructive role together with China in keeping the peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Chunying stated.
However, the politically significant publication Foreign Policy has already suggested that Washington is ready to play hardball in the South China Sea region. Quoting an anonymous defence official, it is stated in the publication that it is not a question of if, but when, the United States will demonstrate a show of military might in the disputed Spratlys.
It was expected that the South China Sea conflict would be a major source of discussion during the aforementioned state visit of Jinping. However, whatever negotiations took place during this highly publicized event, it seems that no satisfactory resolution was ultimately found. Indeed, many geopolitical analysts are already suggesting that the relationship between Washington and Beijing has reached the lowest point in many years.
The South China Sea region is only one pillar of these declining relations. There has been a significant friction between China and the United States over several other issues, including cybercrime, currency manipulation and human right perceptions.
This can perhaps be considered a natural phenomena considering that China is the first country to challenge the predominance of the United States in the world for many years. Already the East Asian superpower has eclipsed the United States economy in terms of total GDP, and the potential for fiscal growth in a nation of well over one-million people is quite obvious.
Of course, no-one is suggesting that China is more economically significant than the United States just yet. In terms of the relative GDP per capita of the two nations, there is absolutely no doubt that the United States remains vastly superior. And the huge economic infrastructure that has been built up by the United States, and indeed the existing global economic institutions, are unquestionably still very much in favour of a US-led world order.
It is perhaps due to this natural enmity that US military officials have been strongly urging the White House to take a more robust approach to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea region. There have been numerous military reports in recent months that have suggested that Chinese capabilities are beginning to rival, and even in some cases exceed, that of the United States. The US has invested in and relied on the ‘guns over butter’ approach to economics in order to cement its position in the world, so such murmurings are certainly of concern to the Washington administration.
China has already demonstrated an emboldened attitude to military endeavors, and has predictably responded strongly to the US plans. The hierarchy of the nation has stated that it will not allow any country to violate what it perceives to be its territory in the South China Sea, and this could certainly lead to a stand-off between the two superpowers.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has requested the United States to refrain from provocative words and actions, and to play a responsible role in the peace and stability of the South China Sea region.
China has already claimed more than 80 percent of the South China Sea region, causing considerable conflict, with counterclaims registered from the likes of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. It will be interesting to see what the US policy is in the region, and whether it will support the claims of these lesson nations, or merely offer a geopolitical buttress against Chinese expansion.
With this in mind, the United States has already committed to a $100 million financial aid program to the maritime law enforcement agencies of Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
In May, Ashton Carter, the US Defense Secretary, stated that China’s actions were increasing “the risk of miscalculation or conflict” in the South China Sea region, which is a key global shipping lane. It now seems that the US has finally decided that the time is right to act. The consequences of this have yet to be seen.