RESTLESS POWERS AND RESTLESS WATERS
Keshav Prasad Bhattarai
Many people in the United States and abroad believe that - America is a declining power, but
Francis Fukuyama also says, “Many political institutions in the United States are decaying”.
Fukuyama, however, says this does not mean that America is “set on a permanent course of
decline, or that its power relative to other countries will necessarily diminish”. He further
argues, “Decay is not the same as decline”, but with decaying political institutions - the
question can rise - how a country can lead the world as the most powerful democracy - with
the most powerful military and economy.
Strategic analyst have begun to ask questions –who won in a recent encounter between the
Aegis cruiser USS Cowpens and the Chinese ships escorting China‟s only aircraft carrier –
Liaoning in the recent South China Sea Standoff ? James R. Holmes thinks, “This round goes
to Chinese navy”.
Students of international politics and geopolitical analyst are looking with keen interests and
with some degree of awe on the nature of relationships between the U.S. and China. In his
recent book -The Great Convergence- Asia, the West and the Logic of One World, Kishore
Muhabubani says that “the most important relationship is always between the world‟s
greatest power (today America) and the world‟s greatest emerging power (today China).
Mahabubani, has also reminded us that “when one great power tries to supplant another one,
that has almost always been accompanied by war”. Nevertheless, we have the single great
historical exception when the United States replaced the Britain nearly a hundred years ago.
Many experts believe China in any time from 2020 to 2030; will replace the United States as
the world‟s largest economy. A largest economy naturally needs a strongest military to
protect its economic interest and China as per the size of its geography and economy - is the
second largest military spender after the United States. Simply, when a country‟s military
spending increases and military power grows stronger - knowingly or unknowingly; it sends
political, psychological, and strategic messages to its immediate neighbors and competing
powers. The message received may gain more strength and meaning in course of its running
than from where the message is sent.
China, replaced Japan as the world‟s second largest economy in 2010, earlier in 2007 it had
overtaken Germany as the third largest and in 2005 had surpassed France and Britain as fourth
and fifth largest economy.
China‟s neighbors has begun to sense China‟s hubristic attitude for long and it has become
more articulate in and around the time it replaced Japan as the world second largest
economy – a title that Japan kept safe for about four decades.
RESTLESSNESS OF THE U.S. AND CHINA IN RESTLESS ASIAN WATERS
As stated earlier, had a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser not taken an evasive action- to avoid
a possible collision with China‟s only aircraft carrier - accompanied by several warships near
the South China Sea, a major navy disaster would have taken place on December 5.
International news agencies have mentioned that the USS Cowpers – a guided missile warship –
while was “lawfully operating” in waters near the South China Sea, a number of Chinese war
ships approached – a highly unusual and deliberate act by Chinese navy.
It is reported that the commanding officer of the American warship issued orders for an
immediate halt when the Chinese ship was closer to just some 400 meters. The Chinese ship
ignored the order issued by American ship and in return, the Cowpens took an escape route to
avoid a near collision.
According to Kevin Baron , on March 8, 2009, too, U.S. defense Department official had
reported five Chinese vessels, including a Chinese Navy intelligence ship, had surrounded, and
aggressively harassed a U.S. USNS Impeccable, in dangerously close proximity and one of
them had approached even at a distance of less than 8 meters.
The Chinese action over the U.S. ship operating in international waters in the South China Sea
in 2009, according to the U.S. Defense Department spokesperson was "dangerous" and
"immature”. Some four such incidents were repeated in less than a week – Pentagon had also
Similar situation has developed in North East Asia as in November this year; after China
unilaterally announced an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in East China Sea. The
Chinese ADIZ extends up to the disputed territories controlled by Japan called Senkaku or
Diaoyu islands and a South Korea controlled submerged reef called Ieodo that China calls as
China warned that any aircraft other than commercial could face defensive emergency
measures. In response, The United States, Japan, and South Korea not only rejected China‟s
claim over the region but also dispatched naval and air surveillance through the region as
well. In reaction, China sent its fighter jets to track Japanese and American military aircraft.
Noted Indian strategist C. Raja Mohan states that it was a clear message from Beijing to the
United States that if Washington wants to “sustain its historic military dominance over the
East China Sea, Yellow Sea and the South China Sea, it must be prepared for continuous
tension with the PLA Navy.”
According to Raja Mohan, it was a clear warning from China that mean - if the U.S. does not
like to strain its relations with China, it should “cease its military operations in Beijing‟s near
seas.” However, the US has rejected Chinese plea. The American officials have expressed
their deep concerns over the issue while both countries have admitted that any time such
activities may follow some accidents and miscalculations.
Raja Mohan, in The Indian Express further states that as great powers have always done,
China also with its farm determination to expand its naval presence in the far seas is prepared
to sanitize its neighborhood against foreign power and increase its strategic influence in
distant theater as a powerful blue water force.
Therefore, Beijing was adamant on its stand and Chinese sources, according to Carl Thayer
have charged that “USS Cowpens had entered within a forty-five kilometer inner defense
layer of the Liaoning carrier group” and was tailing after and harassing the Liaoning formation
as a part of offensive actions.
Jon Harper on the other hand, reflected top defense officials including Defense Secretary
Chuck Hagel who claimed that Chinese actions towards USS Cowpens were “irresponsible” and
aggressive as they harassed the vessel in international waters and compelled it to stop.
One more development describes the state of relations between two great powers –the
existing one and the emerging one. A Bill Gertz story in The Washington Free Beacon
freebeacon.com)has reported a recent second flight test of its newest long-range missile that
is capable of hitting targets in the United States with a nuclear warhead. Earlier in July 2012,
China had made similar test termed as DF-41 flight test .
JAPAN RETURNS WITH STRONGER MESSAGES TO CHINA’S MOVE
According to noted American diplomat George Kennan “Instruments of coercion, once
created, have a tendency to find their own natural master.” Whatever is aimed with the use
of coercion when applied at some fixed values - becomes uncertain because no calculations
made before any strategic or tactical move can face new changes in the varied strategic
environment anticipated earlier.
Let us see the recent development in East Asia in response to China‟s military rise.
Japan now has a new American styled National Security Council- a body of prime minister, the
chief cabinet secretary and the foreign and defense ministers with a job to formulate mid and
long-term policies on diplomatic and national security matters. The council was just
established after Japanese parliament endorsed a bill on November 27, 2013 that is
considered a major policy departure after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power on last
Recently, Japan has approved a plan to increase defense spending by 5 percent over the next
five years - 2 percent more than the defense spending allocated by the previous government.
Japan‟s defense budget although is less than one third of China‟s, the recent increase is the
most dramatic in the last 20 years. Obviously, Japan is the fifth largest military spender in
terms of overall budget allocations.
Mari Yamaguchi of the Associated Press states that the increased Japanese defense spending
is intended „to purchase its first surveillance drones, more jet fighters, naval destroyers, and
amphibious vehicles to meet China‟s growing military activity in the region.
Next major departure was the adoption of a new defense policy document termed as National Security Strategy. The policy document has pledged for a more pro-active role for its
„Self Defense Forces‟ and play more crucial role in international diplomacy and security.
Japan‟s new National Security Strategy is its strongest strategic move in post War period, and
it has gained new strategic momentum, after China declared a new Air-Defense
Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea - covering the disputed islands controlled by
Japan and South Korea but claimed by China. It exhibits Japan‟s hardened defense posture
that follows a comprehensive five years defense plan in less than a month after China
In an editorial China‟s official news agency, Xinhua responded immediately with a remark
that says “Forget about Abenomics! . . . . Abe-military has come on stage.” In another
commentary Xinhua states that since Abe took office, Japan has made a swift shift towards its
war history prior to World War II.
On this strategic setting, Japan on the one hand wants to contribute more to its military
alliance with America that still has 50,000 strong army equipped with most advanced weapons
system. However, on the other hand, America‟s defense sequestration and decline of its
influence coupled with possible security implications for Japan has forced Japan build its own
defense capabilities to cope with the challenges that a rising China with its influential
defense posture is posing a constant source of security threat to Japan and the region as a
According to its new security strategy Japan has sketched on China‟s advanced “military
capabilities in a wide range of areas through its continued increase in its military budget
without sufficient transparency”.
The document also considers Japan‟s defense forces as the “final guarantee of its national
security which deters direct threats from reaching Japan and defeats any threat reaches it”.
SOUTH KOREA, THE U.S., AND THE NORTH EAST ASIA
Immediately after China‟s announcement, the South Korean navy launched an air and sea
military exercise in the area that China claimed as part of its East China Sea Air Defense
Identification Zone (ADIZ). The exercise was conducted with its advanced maritime patrol
aircraft as well as anti-submarine operations with three Aegis destroyers.
South Korea, in the wake of Chinese move, although was at odds with Japan over their own
territorial disputes and Japan‟s role towards Korea prior to World War II, came closer to
Japan, and has enhanced cooperation. South Korea also sent a strong signal to China by
sending its military aircraft that crossed into the ADIZ.
Both militarily and economically, South Korea is a major world power. Between China and
Japan, it carries great strategic weight and fighting capabilities. For example only on early
October, this year, South Korea for the first time displayed its homemade cruise missilesHyunmu 2 and Hyunmu 3 - widely claimed for highest degree of accuracy.
Then again, South Korea under President Park Geun – hye has not only exhibited a strong
defense posture against any security threats from any quarter, President Park has also
demonstrated keen diplomatic mastery in attaining key strategic support from United States
to China, India, and Australia in ensuring peace and stability in Korean peninsula.
American Vice President Joe Biden made immediate visit to the region after Chinese ADIZ
announcement. In a speech during to his visit to East Asian countries- Japan, China, and
South Korea in early December, Biden flatly rejected China's self-declared air defense zone
and said that the United States does not recognize it. Biden articulating his apprehension,
said that the Chinese action raises tension in the region, and would led possible strategic
miscalculation and profound consequences.
Earlier to this American B-52 bombers defying China's newly declared air defense zone, had
made a surveillance flight and both Japan and South Korea showing a united front to Beijing
did the same within a week of ADIZ announcement.
North East Asia has remained in a state of war since the Second World War. The region
commands both the economic and military powerhouse of the world. Similar is its political
Therefore, North East Asia has become a zone of primacy for China, Russia, and Japan for
long. However, for the United States, North East Asia and especially South Korea and Taiwan
gained primacy only after China went under communist rule and when both South Korea and
Taiwan emerged as independent nations.
To remember a part of the history of North East Asia can be relevant here. After World War
II, United States exhibited no strategic interests in Asia west of Japan and Philippines and in
March 1949, Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces General Douglas MacArthur in a newspaper
interview had placed Korea and Taiwan outside the American security perimeter. Henry
Kissinger in his acclaimed book – Diplomacy states that in January the following year,
Secretary of Defense - Dean Acheson during a speech in National Press Club, Washington
referring both South Korea and Taiwan located at the mainland of Asia , claimed in an explicit
terms that . . . it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military
But, there is no need to say that immediately after Korean Crisis, American foreign and
defense policy took a new turn regarding these two countries.
THE WAY FORWARD
State of relations between two Koreas, conflicting territorial claims and unresolved territorial
disputes among the countries of the region - has become a continued source of tension in East
Asia. If the region that commands major world economies coupled with world‟s major
military powers equipped with nuclear weapons enters into a major conflict, no country can
gain a clear win but the loss they would suffer can easily be assessed.
Consequently, stability and peace of Northeast Asia – the great global powerhouse, is not only
a regional matter. In this milieu, the highly volatile mix of cooperation and traditional hatred
in the region has become a most important concern for the peace, security, stability, and
economic health of the world as a whole.
Indubitably, globalization has created enormous prosperity in North East Asia. The countries
of the region with their ever-growing interdependences among them - even with all their
differences have mutually benefitted much more than any other parts of the world. Their
export-oriented prosperity demands a common but secured maritime passage to them and
this works as a major incentive to them- all.
Obviously, China, Japan, South Korea, and the world‟s greatest military power- the United
States, do have no interest in military conflict in the East China Sea, nor any single power can
be assured of its decisive military capabilities against the remaining others.
All they have stronger military and advanced weapon system, can inflict tremendous damage
to any other power and in result their prosperous economy – which they have attained with
peaceful development. Ultimately, when they engage in a conflict with each other they all
know it well that the ultimate victim will be their own security and their prosperity of the
It is yet to become clear why China has decided to declare a defense zone, that it would not
be able to defend and neither Japan nor South Korea were likely to agree it.
Similarly, China also knows it well that whether the United States likes it or not, it has to
come to support Japan or South Korea if conflict erupts in their relations with China. Failing
to do so would mean end of American influence in East and South East Asia and premature
death of its Asian Pivot. Ultimately, it may open doors for the withdrawal of American troops
from the region including Japan and South Korea and end of a global order created after
World War II.
This also means the emergence of a new balance of power in Asia and in the world that would
create enormous challenges than the opportunities for the emerging powers like China and
India. Therefore, the only way for them is a cooperative relationship – from economy to
defense and diplomacy - for a larger global stability in the interest of all in the region.
Question becomes more tricky and confusing - why China has come to declare its new air
defense zone while no one is there to subscribe it. The possible answer might be that it wants
to keep the matter alive to put for posterity to get resolved in accordance with international
law – that it may have thought, is in its favor.
On the other hand, may be China wants to test the military confidence of rival competitive
powers – the United States, Japan and South Korea and even that of India. If that is the case,
there may be some clashes followed by stiff resistance, but no an all out war - because in a
modern warfare where technology prevails than people - no country can have a clear victory.
Therefore, no country in East Asia wants war neither they believe that they can attain what
they want with war.
Even in the worst scenario, a new Cold War between the United States and China may be on
the offing. But as Kishore Mahabubani quotes Kissinger who says that it “ would arrest
progress for a generation on both sides of the Pacific and “spread disputes into international
politics of every region at a time when global issues such as nuclear proliferation, the
environment, energy security and climate change impose global cooperation. Mahabubani
further quotes Kissinger who claims that “relations between China and the United States need
not –and should not – become a zero-sum game.” Indubitably, when relations between the
U.S. and China is defined and updated to the present context, it would naturally apply to
China‟s relations with Japan and South Korea.
Eurasia Review December 26, 2013