Leadership (Abuja)

20 February 2013

Nigeria: Sino-U.S. Relations and the Disputed Islands

opinion

When US President Obama assumed office in January 2009, his top priorities were to pull America out of the financial crisis and end the controversial war against terrorism as well as deepen economic and financial cooperation with major established and emerging powers.

Due to the fact that China is becoming the major economic powerhouse of the world, Sino-US relations reached a new level in the past four years. The two countries started the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009 and Obama became the first US president, since the normalization of relations between the two countries, to pay a state visit to China within one year of assuming office. Since then, there have been more exchanges of visits at the highest levels by officials of the two countries which are the two strongest economies of the world today.

Since American influence across the world is on the decline, and China's is on the ascendancy, the US adopted what it called "Pivot to Asia", later termed as "rebalancing" strategy to strengthen its presence in the Asia Pacific region to contain China's rise by, among other things, preventing the establishment of a regional maritime order that could favour China.

Washington expanded its joint naval exercises with Japan to prepare for the defence of disputed islands, reached new agreements to sell arms to the Philippines, and, recently, agreed to send US marines to Australia. US also restored defence cooperation with Indonesia and New Zealand.

These measures may have reassured US allies of Washington's commitment to the region's stability. But the Obama administration has also reversed Washington's longstanding policy of engagement with Beijing, turning instead to costly initiatives whose force is disproportionate to the threat from China. In fact, Washington's role in escalating tensions over China's territorial disputes with some countries in the South China Sea and the East China Sea can be attributed to this American pivot Asia-Pacific strategy.

In July 2010, in Hanoi, after extensive discussions with all the claimants to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea except China, Secretary Hillary Clinton declared US support for the negotiating positions of the Philippines and Vietnam. The US has also unnecessarily challenged Beijing by boosting its military presence on the East Asian mainland.

Over the last three years, the US has carried out its largest joint military exercises with South Korea since the Korea war and increased the US troop presence in South Korea. Washington and Seoul have also reached multiple defence agreements and, earlier last year, the Pentagon announced plans to upgrade US military capabilities on the Korean Peninsula.

Added to all these, the Obama administration has promoted a maritime coalition in the South China Sea. To complement US ties with the Philippines and Vietnam, Japan signed strategic partnerships, with the two countries, expanding their defence cooperation and military exchanges. Last year, the Australian, Japanese and South Korean militaries, for the first time, participated in the annual US-Philippine military exercise called Balikatan (meaning "shoulder to shoulder").

When Washington got directly involved in China's territorial sovereignty disputes and increased its presence on China's land borders, Beijing would expectedly feel threatened and naturally react in its best interests. As expected from a great power, China has pushed back against the American pivot strategy with concrete policies.

Beijing has substantially increased its food aid to Pyongyang, imported more from North Korea and increased its investments in North Korea. China has also withdrawn its support for the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme, forcing Washington to pursue bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons capacity.

Similarly, China's maritime dispute early last year with the Philippines over Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) suggests that Beijing will defend its territorial integrity even with countries that rely on US support. China sent combat-ready patrols to the islands and, after Philippines withdrew its ships, established a permanent presence there with China's People's Liberation Army, PLA, forming a new military garrison there charged with defending the country's territorial integrity in the South China Sea. Since then, China has continued to actively strengthen its presence throughout the disputed waters and islands.

What all these suggest is that the Obama administration's pivot strategy in the Asia-Pacific region has not contributed to stability in Asia, as many analysts have concluded. Quite the opposite: it has made the region tenser and more conflict-prone. Military aircraft and naval ships now crowd the region's skies and waters.

And the US risks getting involved in hostilities over strategically irrelevant and economically marginal islands. As an African observer, I do not see any dispute. The ownership of these islands is very clear even from the names: South China Sea and East China Sea. So where and why is the dispute?

Even the dispute with Japan over Diaoyu Islands is part of the fallout of this American pivot strategy in that region. Japan's move challenged China's claim to the island provoked anti-Japanese demonstrations throughout China. Japan wouldn't have been so belligerent without US support.

Washington's increased activity on China's periphery has led Beijing to conclude that the US has abandoned strategic engagement, the cornerstone of American policy toward China since the end of the Cold War.

By threatening China and challenging its sovereignty over its territories, Washington has encouraged Chinese leaders to believe that only by adopting combative policies will a rising China be able to guarantee its security. That is the irony of the American pivot strategy -- a strategy that was meant to check rising China has triggered its assertiveness and damaged its faith in cooperation. The pivot strategy has already damaged US security interests, and the cost will only grow.

As many analysts suggest, over the next several years the United States should reshape its Asia policy to restore the consensus of America's previous administrations: that increasing America's military presence on the East Asian mainland is not vital for US security and that the United States should avoid entanglement in complex sovereignty claims in the region. As China rises, a policy of restraint, rather than alarmism, will best serve both the US national security and global peace and prosperity.

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