A new Cold War?
The Cold War was an era plagued by constant fears of a nuclear holocaust at a moment’s notice. After World War II, the world was bifurcated into two opposing ideologies. Each side viewed the other as an existential threat. The question of who initiated the Cold War has been the center of acrimonious debate between historians and academics. Today a similar rivalry is emerging between China and the US. Due to the complex nature of international relations, nothing is ever black and white. There is always a plethora of causes to attribute to an event. Actions by one country are not only open to misinterpretation, but can serve as further reinforcement of an existing perception.
The current world is characterized as a unipolar world led by the US, the sole hegemon. This distribution of power is currently in the midst of a potential change. There are a few potential challengers to US hegemony, but the most viable contender is China. The Chinese economy has been growing at nearly consistent double-digits rates each year for the past thirty years. On par with the economic growth, the Chinese defense budget has been growing as well.
All these indicators point to China becoming a regional hegemon in the 21st century that can challenge the US preponderance of power in the area. Every move China makes, it is viewed suspiciously by her neighbors and the US. China has come to be regarded as an expansionist power bent on dominating the South China Sea and East China Sea under the shroud of reclaiming “lost territories”. These views are further perpetuated by the media, which characterize the rise of China synonymous to the beginning of a new Cold War.
International affairs in a sense can be viewed as a big puzzle with many pieces. Perspectives are the pieces to this large and complicated puzzle. For scholars, politicians, and analysts, the more perspectives they understand the better they can potentially help prevent a conflict. The common perspective of an expansionist China has been reinforced on many in the West as well as China’s neighbors, but the Chinese view has not been fully understood. The Chinese claim that they are reacting to actions of others in the region rather than expanding. While this may not be the entire truth, it can be their truth.
The Chinese counter claims of being expansionist by arguing that they are only reclaiming territories that were historically theirs but lost due to foreign occupation during World War II. They further claim that they are geographically contained by the US, Japan, and other regional nations. As world politics began to alter after World War II, US policy also began to change. The US sent its Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Straits as preemption to the Korean War spilling over. This action began a half a century of US intervention and containment of China and her affairs.
Landlocked on all sides except its eastern boundary with the Sea, China views the seas as the only means to project out yet even its coastal zone is contained with the presence of the US military littered up and down the region. Not only is China’s sea coast patrolled by the US Navy, US army bases are littered up and down China’s coast from South Korea all the way down to Australia.
How would the US react if it had a foreign navy and military base near the coast of California, New York or the Gulf of Mexico? Fearful of US containment and its contribution to the Soviet Union’s downfall, China has become apprehensive of the impact on the its economy and the longevity of its unprecedented growth.
[via US Funds]
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a union of countries that was borne out of desire for economic modernization and development as well as a common fear of Communism during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fear of Communism evaporated amongst the ASEAN members. This allowed the organization to focus more on its desire for economic growth. As a result, ASEAN began to focus on regional trade and security issues. In July of 1995, the regional calculus changed. The former nemesis, Vietnam not only established diplomatic relations with the US, but became a member of ASEAN. Shortly after, Laos and Burma joined the organization.
With the inclusion of almost the entire region, the focus of the organization shifted to resolving outstanding territorial issues in addition to economic growth. Most of the members began to see a new threat to the region, China. Even though China had not been a formal ally, ASEAN and China were united in their stance against the Soviet Union and Vietnam during the Cold War. But with the Cold War divisions gone and China’s rise, ASEAN had its eyes on a new antagonist.
China’s claim to recover its lost territories is seen as overt aggression and expansionist by ASEAN. They see China’s slow expansion as an approach to seize the resource rich area without provoking too much international outcry. Rather than a full out military operation, ASEAN believes China uses time as a weapon and incrementally expands in the region without drawing much global attention.
[via GMA Network]
China views ASEAN similar to how the Soviet Union saw NATO. ASEAN members in the last decade have witnessed an exponential increase in bilateral defense arrangements with one another as well as with foreign powers, mainly the US and Japan. The head of the Indonesian army referred to the myriad of bilateral alliances amongst ASEAN members as a “defense spider web.” The discussion of a multilateral ASEAN security regime is no longer a whisper, but becoming reality.
Even though ASEAN does not possess the military regime that characterizes NATO it is slowly getting there. China sees ASEAN as a nascent collective security arrangement that is indirectly backed by the US military. The growing militarism of ASEAN and the potential for this nascent military alliance to actually become a collective security pact could further isolate and raise security concerns in China.
History and perception are important variables that play a factor in understanding the situation in the region. China’s motivations stem from different factors than frequently assumed, but her perception of regional developments plays a major role in its motivations and actions. Aside from the massive US military presence along China’s coast forming a containment-like environment, the existence of ASEAN is another development that creates apprehension in China. Even though many in the West may view China’s actions as belligerent, the Chinese view their actions as only a defensive reaction to what they see as bullying and aggression by the US and other regional players. In order to better understand the situation, being aware of the Chinese perspective is vital. The more that alternative perspectives are understood, the better and more complete a picture one will acquire of the situation and hopefully prevent another Cold War.