By Julien Chesaux – As China is affirming itself to defend its interests in its near abroad, the South and East China Seas are the strategic hotspots of the next years and bipolarity between China and Japan is the best option to handle Beijing’s rise.
Currently, Asia represents 35% of the world’s GDP. By 2050, the Asian Development Bank predicts that it will embody 50% of the world’s GDP far ahead of Europe and the US. The Asian century will be sustained by three economic colossuses (China, India and Japan) and by new challengers (South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam). All these countries want to ensure a continuous peaceful growth. Nevertheless, many concerns have arisen to understand and accept the new status of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on an international level. This fear of a hidden Chinese agenda to control the region provokes tensions in its neighborhood. Even the US strategic pivot and the reinforcement of its 7th Fleet will not stop China’s rise although its economic slowdown.
A Greedy Dragon
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) never divulgates details about its military programs. The Military balance 2013 states that the official defense-budget figures (US$ 90.2 billion in 2011) underestimate the full spectrum of defense spending (US$ 139.7 billion in 2011). According to the latest defense white paper, Beijing plans to be able to win a local/regional war with modern equipment. By 2050, the PLA foresees to become a peer competitor against the US. The state is seeking to prioritize acquisition of high-technology weaponry, increase its indigenous production ability and improve its power projection capabilities. Concerns about the PLA include different projects such as the development of a new stealth aircraft, the launch of aircraft carriers, ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, spaces and cyber-warfare materials. Furthermore, it is now becoming an arm exporter thanks to an increase of its R&D, reverse engineering and cyber attacks like the one made recently giving China the plans of many US weapon systems.
Beijing considers the Bohai Gulf, the Yellow Sea, the East and South China Seas as a maritime “strategic stability bell”; a region of geostrategic importance to protect economic centers along its coast. It claims an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) much further than the one allowed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (200 miles = 370 km). Therefore, its deterrence military capacity is essential to protect the vital Strait of Malacca, which represents 40 % of global trade and 50 % of energy trade, and the numerous disputed islands (Diayu/Senkaku, Spartly and Paracel/Xisha islands) surrounded by presumed reserves of natural gas and oil.
Uncertainty in Asia and the Japanese Option
After a decade of cordial relations with some Southeast Asian states through generous economic, commercial, infrastructural and cultural programs, the PRC shifted its approach and started to “flex its muscles”. As a response, the deliveries to Southeast Asian states jumped by 185% between 2007 and 2011 according to the Economist. Although these new military capacities will make Beijing think twice before trying any armed action, the lack of unity and capacity in the ASEAN will not stop China. ASEAN states can only sustain a low to medium intensity “gunboat diplomacy” as we see from time to time.
But even if tension gets higher, Washington might not be ready to fulfill its commitment as far as needed. As De Gaulle was convince that the USA would have not defended Europe if a Soviet invasion or a nuclear attack occurred, Asian states should as well think about a nearer “strategic umbrella”. The best option to contain China and to be sure of the region’s security is to have bipolarity between China and Japan. Its interests are closer to Asia than the US so it is the best candidate to maintain stability in Asia. Although Japan is embedded in an economic crisis, the changes are urging. First, Tokyo should change its constraining Constitution that does not match the ongoing and foreseeable situation it faces. The country needs to assume its role in the region with a full military capability considering as well nuclear weapons. Thus, it could quickly match China’s forces and constrain China on its east and south side.
Instability and uncertainty may increase quickly in the region. The US will slowly but surely loose influence. Thus, is the US ready to fulfill its commitment towards its Asian allies if needed? Is Japan going to rewrite its postwar Constitution in order to become the peer competitor of China and create bipolarity in Asia? Is North Korea determined to use its nuclear capacity? Which pieces these states will take in the big new Asian puzzle?
Julien Chesaux is currently working in Paris as a Scientific Advisor at the Swiss delegation to the OECD. He holds a master degree in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen and his main research interests are Global Security, International Relations and War Studies.
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