Will China Use Russian-Style Tactics to Settle Territorial Disputes in Asia?

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L) and Chinese Minister of Defense General Chang Wanquan listen to the Chinese national anthem during Hagel's welcome ceremony prior to their meeting in Beijing, April 8, 2014.

Russia's blatant seizure and rapid annexation of Crimea last month and its potential designs on the rest of Ukraine appear to have rattled U.S. allies in Asia who are concerned that China may use Moscow's tactics as precedent for capturing disputed territories in the region.

And considering that the United States is unwilling to take military action to stop Russia, treaty allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines are worried Washington will be equally reluctant to stop China in its tracks if it emulates Moscow's aggression.

Their fears are understandable as China is becoming more assertive over its territorial disputes with its neighbors in the South and East China Seas, experts say.

In 2012, when China seized a disputed and potentially strategic reef—the Scarborough Shoal—in the South China Sea that had been under Philippine jurisdiction, the United States shrugged off the aggression despite its mutual defense treaty with Manila.

A year later, when China declared a special air defense identification zone over disputed islands with Japan, the U.S. sent B-52 bombers through the sensitive airspace but later told American commercial airlines to comply with Beijing's new rule to avoid any unintended confrontation.

The U.S. move was interpreted by some as caving in to China and, in turn, undermining Japan, Washington’s most important ally in Asia.

So, amidst the ominous clouds over Ukraine and heightened concerns among U.S. allies about the prospect of China using force to pursue its territorial claims, U.S. President Barack Obama may have a tough time reassuring allies during his fifth trip to Asia beginning next week.

"I think the [Obama] administration is coming to realize that events on the other side of the globe have a big impact on the security dynamics within Asia," Mike Green, a former senior White House Asia adviser, said ahead of Obama's eight-day trip from April 22 to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, all of which have territorial disputes with China in the South and East China Seas.

'Red line' warning

Green said that Obama's "red line" warning  to Syria in 2012 not to use chemical weapons in the country's civil war and his apparent failure to enforce that line with military action after Syria actually used the weapons had "really rattled" the Asian region, especially treaty allies Japan and South Korea.

"It’s hard to overstate how much the decision on Syria affected thinking, especially in treaty allies like Japan and Korea," he said.

Even though U.S. options are limited on Crimea—Washington has no "binding" security agreement with Ukraine unlike with treaty allies Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines—"it becomes part of a narrative and the dots start getting connected," Green said.

"So these non-Asian events are affecting the credibility of American security commitments in ways that perhaps the administration didn’t expect, and that they have to compensate for," he said.

Senior U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Obama's diplomatic point man for East Asia Daniel Russel have scrambled ahead of Obama's trip to reassure Asian allies of the U.S. commitment to defend them.

Still, questions over potential Chinese military actions in Asia in the wake of the Russian moves in Ukraine continue to overshadow Obama’s upcoming trip.

No compromise

Beijing's assertive statements aren't helping to ease the concerns.

China's Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan warned this month that Beijing would never compromise on disputed territory, raising the prospects of military action particularly over the contested islands in the East China Sea, which are known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

On the issue of what General Chang called “territorial sovereignty,” China would “make no compromise, no concession, no treaty.”

“The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win,” he emphasized.

In another muscle-flexing move, China last month attempted to block a Philippine vessel rotating troops to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea which Manila says lie within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Beijing's move "is but one example of creeping Chinese coerciveness that so unnerves the region," said Michael Auslin, a scholar on Asian regional security at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

"Washington often gets frustrated with the amount of reassurance its Asian allies and partners seem to need, but it also must recognize the sources of such concern," he said, citing what he called Chinese President Xi Jinping's "increased pressure on Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other nations in an effort to aggressively propel Chinese interests."

"Although the actions so far fall short of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's brazen takeover [of Crimea], they [the Chinese] are shifting the perceived balance of power in Asia," Auslin said. "It is this shift that the Obama Administration has so far failed to counter."

First question

When White House officials held a media briefing Friday on Obama's trip, the first question posed to his National Security Adviser Susan Rice was on the Ukraine crisis and how it has impacted the way some of the Asian leaders have viewed their own territorial disputes with China and the threat that they feel from Beijing.

Rice was quick to emphasize that Washington has been in close contact with its allies "about the importance of a strong international front to uphold principles that they and we all hold dear—the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, the need for peaceful resolution of disputes."

"And we will continue to have that discussion throughout each of the stops on our trip," she said.

Some experts believe Obama's strategy to counter Russia's bald aggression is the right approach and may even work against China in case it uses force to pursue its territorial claims in Asia.

Obama has imposed limited sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Crimea peninsula and warned of graver economic sanctions if Moscow reneges on a new international deal on Ukraine or sends Russian forces into eastern Ukraine.

"I think the way in which Mr. Obama has handled Ukraine, and the implications that people will try to draw from that for disputed territories in the East Asia region has generally been fine," said Washington-based Brookings Institution's Director of Foreign Policy Research Michael O'Hanlon.

It represents "a balanced message which is about right for what China needs to hear and what our allies need to hear about the disputed territories in the East and South China Seas," he said, adding that the immediate response to any Chinese action should also be sanctions rather than military confrontation.

"I don't think we should go to war against China the minute there's another altercation if there is one, and there probably will be. I think we need this kind of a balanced approach, and in fact we might lead with sanctions there as well," he said.

"And that may not make every Japanese friend equally happy. That may not make every Filipino friend equally happy. But we have to also show some restraint and judiciousness in how we use military force to respond to crises that may or may not, as bad as they are, be the end of the world. "


Other experts doubt China has been encouraged by Russia's incursions into Ukraine.

"Apparently the theory du jour is that the Chinese see the Crimea situation as a 'go' signal for them to go take over the Diaoyu," said Christopher Johnson, a former CIA China analyst. ” I think this is totally wrong. It misunderstands Chinese strategic thinking and Chinese strategic culture."

He said the impact of the Crimea episode on China’s relationship with Russia and Beijing's view of the Russian relationship as a sort of "card" in the triangular China-U.S.-Russia relationship are worth scrutinizing.

"And of course the goal is to always have sort of what they call an active Russia option, or card, inside or under the umbrella of the management of Sino-U.S. relations because it helps level out the power disparity between the U.S. and China," said Johnson, now the head of China studies at CSIS.

Despite its rapidly bulging military muscle, some experts believe China would not be able to easily overrun territories it claims of U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines, or even neighboring Taiwan island.

Strobe Talbott, who served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, said that Beijing would not be able to take over Taiwan without "widespread resistance."

"Russia took over Crimea w/out military force. China could not do same in Taiwan w/out widespread resistance," Talbott, now the head of Brookings Institution, said in a tweet on Friday.

The United States is legally bound to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of an attack. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province and has vowed to resort to force to reclaim the island if it declares formal independence.

"Regardless of whether the Russian-Ukrainian crisis will repeat itself in Asia, instability is spreading," AEI scholar Auslin said, adding that combating both that reality and the fear of it may well prove to be the next great American challenge.

"The issue is not whether China today is planning on Putin-style tactics to secure its interests, but whether Beijing is setting the table to do so in the future," he said.


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