Strategic competition between China and the United States in Asia-Pacific is intensifying, with Beijing's growing capability to bully America's allies in Asia, block U.S. military presence in East and South China Seas, and cut off U.S. access to parts of the global commons in possible pursuit of regional hegemony.
The United States is fighting back. "The U.S. military strategy underpinning the Obama administration's 'pivot' to Asia," writes Walter Ladwig at University of Oxford, "is known in Pentagon circles as 'Air-Sea Battle.' It depends upon the long-range capabilities of the U.S. Navy and Air Force to overcome the mines, submarines, anti-ship missiles and other advanced technology designed to keep the U.S. military out of 'exclusion zones' established by potentially hostile powers. Air-Sea Battle has attracted the most attention in the Asia-Pacific region, where America's allies see it as a way to respond to an increasingly confrontational China."
To show support for its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. military and Japan's Self-Defense Force launched a month-long joint military exercise on the western Pacific island of Guam in September, aimed at strengthening two militaries' capability to defend remote islands from "foreign" attack. The U.S.-Japanese joint exercise coincided with U.S. State Department's announcement that the U.S.-Japan security treaty will apply to the disputed Senkaku Islands and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's Singapore declaration that 60 percent of U.S. warships, including six of the 11 aircraft-carrier strike groups, will be stationed in the Asia-Pacific.
Beijing, in turn, has decoded President Obama's 'pivot' to Asia policy and Secretary Panetta's "Air-Sea Battle" strategy as a clear sign of Washington's aggressive policy to contain China. In response, China spent $129 billion on its armed forces in 2011, a significant portion of which is dedicated to acquiring "anti-access" capabilities, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Viewing from Beijing, as Ladwig points out, "it is not hard to see how the United States would appear threatening to China, particularly when it spends six times as much on defense and has formal alliances or strategic partnerships with the third, fourth and fifth strongest military powers in Asia."
As defense strategy getting in the way of diplomacy, Beijing sees the United States is "pivoting toward trouble" in the Asia-Pacific.
"From China's perspective," writes Jian Junbo, a Chinese international relations specialist at Shanghai's Fudan University, "it is not coincidental that its long-standing but dormant territorial disputes with Japan and other neighboring countries in the South China Sea suddenly intensified after Washington announced its 'return to Asia' strategic shift. Behind all the conflicts associated with China and its neighbors in recent years, there is the big shadow of the United States, which is pouring fuel on the flames. With the United States actually taking sides, territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas have quickly escalated into dangerous conflicts between Beijing and its neighbors."
To make things worse, "growing nationalism in Asia, especially China," noted London-based The Economist, "aggravates the threat. Having helped create nationalism and exploited it when it suited them, China's leaders now face vitriolic criticism if they do not fight their country's corner. A recent poll suggested that over half of China's citizens thought the next few years would see a 'military dispute' with Japan. The islands matter, therefore, less because of fishing, oil or gas than as counters in the high-stakes game for Asia's future. Every incident, however small, risks setting a precedent. Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines fear that if they make concessions, China will sense weakness and prepare the next demand. Beijing fears that if it fails to press its case, the United States will conclude that it is free to scheme against China."
A 21st-century Great Game - the strategic rivalry between China and the United States for supremacy in Asia - is unfolding in the West Pacific. While the "best defense" may still be "dialogue," as Ladwig suggested, neither China nor the United sees that everything can be resolved by just talk the talk. As both China and the United States are preparing to walk the walk, the Asia-Pacific is entering a new round of the arms race. And "the more militarized the region becomes," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbradt, a China analyst with the International Crisis Group, "the harder it is to resolve conflicts."
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.