When the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989, it heralded the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. For so long, the whole world was on edge with the precarious strategy of “Mutually Assured Destruction” that saw both countries engaging in a nuclear arms race to deter either side from using weapons of mass destruction. Soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, political unrest escalated within the USSR, finally culminating in the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev as president and the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991 — with the member-republics like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. declaring their independence from the Union.
Times have certainly changed since then, and although Russian president Vladimir Putin tries to flex some nuclear muscle by announcing upgrades and modernization (including plans for increased spending) to remind the world that it was once the other half of the so-called “superpowers,” the perception is that it is not poised to change the global balance of power, as one analyst put it, for a number of reasons — among them its sagging economy.
China however is emerging as the next country that could spark a potential flashpoint as it continues to engage in a “war of words,” claiming disputed territories in the South and East China Seas as its own by virtue of the so-called “nine-dash line” that many – including US Assistant State Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel and US Naval Operations chief Admiral Jonathan Greenert — said has absolutely no basis in international law. China in effect has appropriated virtual control when it declared Air Defense Identification Zones and imposed fishing restrictions in contested maritime zones, deploying Chinese destroyers and naval vessels for good measure.
China’s “bully tactics” have been increasing over the past several years — with the Philippines getting the brunt of Chinese intimidation as seen in a recent incident where Filipino fishermen were sprayed by a water cannon from a Chinese vessel. The Philippines has strongly protested China’s provocations and brought the territorial dispute for peaceful resolution before a UN tribunal which China refuses to recognize. For a while, it looked like we were all alone in our efforts to censure China’s increasing aggression, with ASEAN member-nations hesitant to tackle the issue. Lately however, more nations are beginning to express indignation on the escalating tension over the maritime disputes, beginning to feel the big bully’s intimidating moves — with bolder initiatives against Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. A Filipino diplomat told me, “Hindi na tayo nag-iisa (we’re no longer alone).”
Ambassador Philip Goldberg sent me an interesting analytical piece by the dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, titled “China’s Fear Strategy” where Hill noted China’s transformation from a “soft power juggernaut” mindful of other nations’ opinions to the disrespectful bully that it is perceived today. Many countries (notably European states) have since learned the basic rules of the diplomatic game after the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, respecting sovereign equality under international law and recognizing that conflicting territorial claims should be pursued peacefully and by mutual consent. In contrast, China has displayed a disturbing proclivity to ignore the sensitivities of its neighbors as far as disputed territorial claims are concerned. “Unilateral assertion of such claims creates tension and increases the threat of violent conflict — often the result of miscalculation or accident,” Hill wrote.
Some analysts theorize that China’s belligerence is driven by economic concerns considering that the disputed territories (like certain portions of the Spratlys) are resource rich. Hill however posits that an equally compelling explanation could be the internal political turmoil in China, with Party leaders struggling to maintain control even while “internal security services compete against the military for resources and influence, and both compete against civilian institutions.” Clearly, Chinese president Xi Jinping walks a tightrope wherein he needs to maintain a strong relationship with the security and military bureaucracy to implement his reform agenda — dubbed the “Chinese Dream” — to avoid the so-called middle-income trap, Hill explained.
As we have noted in the past, the income gap between the rich and the poor especially in the provinces is driving resentment among citizens, yet Xi must also address conflicting interests and prevent the Party infighting from getting worse. Obviously, one way of retaining control is to stoke the pride of nationalism to stem the Chinese people’s frustration with their government.
We are extremely pleased that our longtime ally, the United States, is putting more substance to its “Asia pivot” policy as underscored by the forthcoming Asia tour of US President Barack Obama in April where he will visit South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. It’s pure nonsense for some to believe the US is again contemplating the idea of setting up bases in the Philippines. The fact is, the US military is developing a lot of hardware like the smartphone-piloted ARES drones that remove the need for bases, and a new game-changing hypersonic stealth jet that can fly six times faster than the speed of sound, making it impossible for identified targets to “run and hide.”
Although China is still far from attaining the same military might as the United States – US intelligence confirmed recently the Chinese military is about 20 years behind in developing an honest-to-goodness aircraft carrier — no one should dismiss China’s continuing “war of words” against its neighbors. History has shown the likes of Hitler who used the power of words to launch a propaganda machinery that sowed the seeds of the Second World War.
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