WASHINGTON, December 13, 2013 – Recent escalations in the East China Sea are indicative of a great power competition being waged by the U.S., still the world’s mightiest superpower, and China, a rising power worrying Washington officials concerned with maintaining that dominance.
Territorial disputes between China and its smaller neighboring rivals are being exacerbated by the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot,” a policy that involves surging U.S. military assets in the Asia-Pacific and redoubling America’s bilateral ties with China’s regional competitors.
Part of the propaganda about why it is necessary for the U.S. to stand up to China’s more muscular foreign policy in the Asia Pacific is that America needs to swoop in and rescue all these tiny Asian nations being bullied by China. That understanding of the clash over disputed land and maritime territory is wrong on a number of levels.
The Christian Science Monitor cites a professor of international relations in Singapore saying, “All the countries in Southeast Asia are worried,” as they are expecting China to declare new Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, in addition to the one in the East China Sea which overlaps land and maritime territory claimed by Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.
All three of those governments are allied with the U.S., as are those of the Philippines, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, all of which have sovereignty disputes with China in the South China Sea.
We’re told the leadership in these countries comes to Washington with complaints about China’s expanding territorial claims in the hopes the U.S. will push China back. It would be an abdication of our moral standing and role as world leader, goes the argument, to leave these nations to fend for themselves against big, bad China.
First of all, let’s remember that all of the parties in this fight for territory and regional influence are states vying for their own interest and power. To talk of “rescuing” these parties from the unspeakable fate of losing out to China in a geo-political competition for territory, resources, and naval access is disingenuous.
But more than that, these countries are resisting being sucked up into a rising China’s orbit. The call to rescue them from China overlooks the fact that they are now largely in the U.S.’s orbit, so to speak. Many of these countries benefit from U.S. economic and military aid and they bear the usual costs of those resources, like accepting unpopular U.S. military bases on their land or ceding to American economic interests.
In all likelihood, they would face the same kind of geo-political cost-benefit arrangement if they were client states of China instead of the U.S. That choice - China or the U.S. - isn’t necessarily an inherently black and white choice, given that U.S. claims about promoting democracy are problematic as far as the facts are concerned.
The Philippines, for example, doesn’t always fawn over U.S. patronage. The U.S. reportedly launched a drone strike in the Philippines last year that prompted angry reactions from government officials wary of a breach of their sovereignty. One Filipino representative, Luz Ilagan, called for a probe into what she referred to as the “extensive and intensive intrusion of the U.S. military in Armed Forces of the Philippines operations.”
“If these reports are true,” she added, “then U.S. troops are participating in and conducting operations beyond what is allowed in the Visiting Forces Agreement and directly transgressing our sovereignty. More importantly, their participation in these operations is a potential magnet for the Philippines’ participation in a brewing U.S.-instigated regional conflict.”
The early years of Washington’s attempt to bring the Philippines into the U.S. orbit were far more egregious, as is well known. The 1899-1902 U.S. war and occupation of the Philippines was a vicious colonial experiment that included monstrous actions by the U.S. military that would undoubtedly qualify as war crimes today.
Inclusive estimates that account for excess deaths related to the war say there were as many as one million casualties. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were locked up in concentration camps, where poor conditions and disease killed thousands.
This is one reason why the population is very sensitive to the presence of the U.S. military, which was kicked out at the end of the Cold War but is now making its way back in as the Pentagon pressures Manila for new basing rights. If China had had this legacy in the Philippines and was now trying to regain military bases, it would surely be listed as something America must rescue the poor Filipinos from.
Take Japan as another example. Much can be said of the preservation of democracy in Japan since the end of World War II, but the continued U.S. military occupation and the sway Washington has over the Japanese government has hardly gone on without incident.
Up to 85% of the Okinawan population wants occupying U.S. troops out, in large part because of the behavior of U.S. forces. Between 1972 and 2009, there were 5,634 criminal offenses committed by US servicemen, including 25 murders, 385 burglaries, 25 arsons, 127 rapes, 306 assaults and 2,827 thefts.
Japanese leaders can’t submit to the will of the people on this issue for obvious reasons: Washington won’t allow it. “In 2010, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pledged to relocate the U.S. base, then backtracked under US pressure,” reports the Washington Post. “Outraged Okinawans staged public protests, demonstrations spread to Tokyo, Hatoyama’s approval rating plummeted to 25 percent and he resigned.”
Again, these are some of the costs of remaining in the U.S. orbit, but they are details that the governments in Washington, Tokyo, and Manila are loath to highlight. In the official formulation, America bestows freedom and democracy onto these client states, whereas China would dominate them ruthlessly.
One of the arguments for why China can’t be allowed to make further naval gains is that America’s Navy patrols the seas to ensure “freedom of navigation,” and China can’t be relied upon to do that. It’s worth noting, as the International Crisis Group notes, “China’s domestic law…recognizes that, ‘All states, subject to international laws and the laws and regulations of the People’s Republic of China, enjoy the freedoms of navigation and over-flight in its exclusive economic zone…’”
The argument that if the U.S. didn’t patrol the Earth with its navy, nobody would be able to enjoy freedom of navigation is difficult to believe. In fact, a large part of the reason behind having a worldwide naval presence is so the U.S. can choke off oil or trade to potential belligerents, not to ensure freedom of navigation as a matter of principle. So when people worry about China not respecting freedom of navigation, what they really mean is that they don’t want China to have the kind of naval control that the U.S. has.
In reality, neither the U.S. nor China is all conqueror or savior. Both want to pursue their selfish interests for domination in the Asia Pacific and these weaker states are simply caught up in the jockeying. For once, Americans can do without the bogus narratives about liberating missions and democracy promotion.
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