As another round of all-too-realistic war games has kicked off in Taiwan and the Philippines, the Pacific looks to become the next flashpoint of conflict. And this time the major players are the world’s two biggest economies – the US and China.
4,500 US troops are participating in an annual military exercise in the Philippines, just a week after a diplomatic incident that provoked a standoff between Chinese and Filipino warships. Simultaneously, thousands of Taiwanese troops are repelling a simulated Chinese attack on the island, whose independence its bigger neighbor refuses to recognize.
At first glance, China is entangled in regional disputes that have little consequence for the rest of the world. The South China Sea is potentially rich in oil, and already provides valuable shipping lanes and fishing stocks. China says it is entitled to treat the sea almost in its entirety as its own on the basis of a sixty-year-old claim, and in apparent violation of standard international maritime treaties. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have counter-claims.
Last week a Filipino warship attempted to arrest two Chinese fishing boats operating in what it says is its segment of the sea. But two Chinese surveillance ships arrived and began to shield the fishing boats, preventing the arrests. Heated rhetoric followed from both Manila and Beijing.
But this is essentially a commercial dispute, only slightly spiced up by nationalistic grandstanding.
Taiwan and Tibet’s sovereignty disputes are long-festering sores. But despite China’s insistence on reintegration, and the territories' drives for full independence, no sides are likely to take active steps to upset the status quo.
Nonetheless, the rise in tension is palpable.
And the elephant in the Pacific is China’s ballooning defense budget. In just ten years it has quadrupled, and now stands only behind that of the United States. The estimate is that the Chinese are spending $120 billion on their military every year, though outside observers do not know the exact numbers – or just what all the money is being spent on.
But no one doubts that China is militarizing. Once a blunt force that prided itself on its manpower, the People’s Liberation Army is still the world’s biggest – with 2.3 million active servicemen. But the focus now is on advanced technology and better co-ordination that would allow the country to build an army capable of winning a decisive regional 21st century conflict, not a long-term traditional war.
In addition to importing top-of-the-line technology from Russia, China is developing its own. American officials claim that an army of Chinese hackers are working day and night to steal cutting edge technologies from the government and top military contractors. It's not much of a surprise, considering China’s traditionally lax attitude towards intellectual property.
US military planners and analysts commonly believe that China wants to gain total control of the seas in its region, up to what it refers to as the first island chain around its coasts – one that encompasses the South China Sea, and most importantly Taiwan. Rapidly increasing its naval capability, and aiming thousands of missiles at the sea, the PLA wants to make China’s coast a no-go area for the roaming US Navy, a key protector of many regional American allies.
If China feels like it has achieved regional superiority, the current balance of power will be upset, and the consequences, at least for its neighbors, could be momentous.
The US is hardly sitting still.
After being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, the United States has officially announced that it will “rebalance,” shifting major forces to the pacific.
Although Washington says it will delay building a planned multi-billion super base in Guam, it will still bolster its existing sites, bring more troops and equipment, and conduct frequent military exercises – to the obvious chagrin of China, and the US bête noire and true wildcard – North Korea.
The sides also seem to have a tenuous grasp of each other’s motives. American officials bemoan the opaqueness of the Chinese Communist Party, whose decisions are often unpredictable or unreadable. Meanwhile, China has no trust in the US' stated mission of preserving the peace. Chinese officials often accuse the Americans of “colonialism,” and believe most of Washington's actions to be fueled by national interest, not the ostensible concern for self-determination or human rights. They also believe that US uses allies such as the Philippines as its proxies – offering them money and protection in exchange for influence.
China’s rapid social changes have so far failed to shift the country from a path of moderation. But as the country grows into its new-found economic power, it may become more assertive politically. The country is already broadening its reach by taking a leading role in many UN military missions, but some see this as simply training for the Chinese army for future regional conflicts.
The biggest guarantor of stability remains the economic co-dependence between both countries. The US is China’s biggest trading partner, while China is the United States’ second biggest.
So it comes down to China’s rapid rise, versus America’s desire to remain the leading global power. And as the nuclear powers face each other, an out-and-out conflict seems unthinkable, but major international incidents – perhaps between China and US allies – are almost inevitable.
Igor Ogorodnev, RT