Why South China Sea may be world’s next hot spot: Burman
Most important relationship in world — the one between China and the United States — will determine how the history of this young century evolves.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, left, and Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan wave prior to their meeting at the Chinese Defense Ministry headquarters in Beijing, April 8, 2014. ALEX WONG / ASSOCIATED PRESS
By: Tony Burman Special to the Star, Published on Sat Apr 12 2014
Far from the killing fields of Syria and the brinkmanship over the Ukraine-Russia border, the most important relationship in the world — the one between China and the United States — will determine how the history of this young century evolves.
Will it evolve in manageable and constructive ways? Or will it end up in war?
Last Monday, on China’s first aircraft carrier, the relationship took an unusual, and perhaps promising, turn. As part of his first visit to China, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was invited to be the first foreign visitor to go aboard the aircraft carrier, which China has spent a decade refurbishing. The Liaoning was originally a rundown Soviet-era carrier purchased from Ukraine, but now it is seen as a central part of the expanded Chinese navy.
The last time the Americans came in contact with the Liaoning was in December, early in its trials in the South China Sea, when it nearly collided with a U.S. navy cruiser. Had that happened, it would have been the most serious confrontation between China and the U.S. in years.
At other times during Hagel’s visit, the exchanges between both sides were sharp and pointed. At issue for the Americans is China’s claim over islands contested by Japan and the Philippines — two allies tied by treaty to the U.S.
But there was no sign from China of any interest in a deal: “On this issue, we will make no compromise, no concession — not even a tiny violation is allowed,” warned Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan.
But many observers were not surprised by the heated rhetoric. After all, that is what military people, defending their national interests, are expected to say. What is more significant and encouraging, according to U.S. journalist and foreign affairs analyst Robert D. Kaplan, is that they are meeting in the first place, and at a very high level.
Kaplan is author of a new book that describes the disputed South China Sea as a growing source of potential conflict that could overtake Europe and the Middle East as a focus of global tensions. He describes the South China Sea “as central to Asia as the Mediterranean is to Europe.”
Kaplan’s book, Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, is a graphic and engaging portrait of a region that will help shape our century. But in an interview, Kaplan said he feels there is no inevitability that these tensions will end up in a 21st-century war.
He writes that “Europe is a landscape; East Asia is a seascape . . . a crucial difference between the 20th and the 21st centuries.” Unlike the last century, where “the most contested areas of the globe . . . lay on dry land in Europe,” East Asia is a “vast, yawning expanse . . . of great seas and distances.”
Kaplan believes that “China will want to keep the pot boiling . . . but if it fights, it loses.”
Instead, China’s objective will be to “dilute U.S. power in the Pacific” without actually fighting.
However, he feels the long-term threat of a growing Chinese navy is genuine, and incidents involving disputed islands between China and most of the Asian nations will “keep occurring.”
Japan, in particular, will be a target, and the Japan-China relationship is potentially the “most destabilizing” for the region, Kaplan believes. An American challenge in the years ahead will be to “rein in Japanese nationalism” to avoid provocations.
But Kaplan challenges the view, expressed by some historians, that there are parallels between the imperial ambitions of China today compared with Kaiser’s Germany a century ago on the eve of the First World War.
Instead, he compares present-day China with the U.S. in the early 20th century when it effectively ejected Europe from the Caribbean and then went on to control the entire hemisphere.
“That is when the U.S. became a great power,” Kaplan says.
In that same spirit, the Chinese seek to reduce American influence in Asia with the strategic aim, as he writes in his book, to “exercise de facto hegemony over their own Asian Mediterranean.”
In his interview, Kaplan also had a gentle warning for Canadians.
“Canada wants to sell its energy to Asia,” he says. But for Canadians, as well as for Hagel, we first need to understand it.
Tony Burman, former head of Al-Jazeera English and CBC News, teaches journalism at Ryerson University. (firstname.lastname@example.org )