Cui Tiankai and Kurt Campbell on Asia-Pacific

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai met with United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in Honolulu few days ago in what is the first official U.S.-China dialog on the Asia Pacific. This meeting came about as a result of the last Strategic & Economics Dialog where both countries decided it was critical they find ways to advance peace for the region.

As raventhorn2000 has pointed out here, the U.S. media as usual are advancing a very bleak and confrontational narrative over recent developments in the South China Sea. In the spirit of the S&ED, that is very misguided. I think it is important we keep things in proper perspective and to hear the two government’s official positions directly; Chinese government through Xinhua here and U.S. Department of State through its blog, DipNote, here. In fact, it is worthwhile to think from the perspective of other players in East Asia as well.

From the U.S. perspective, I think she is very interested in a status quo where the U.S. remains at the helm in the region. Therefore, a rising China with growing economic clout in the region is creating discomfort for this ‘status quo’ stance. Look at China’s growing trade with ASEAN nations shortly after the FTA went into effect. This year, it is expected to top 300 billion USD, and by 2015, the arrangement is expected to expand to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. China is already Japan’s largest trade partner. With South Korea, the three are now looking into a possible FTA. An economic center of gravity shifting towards China is real and inevitable in East Asia.

With economic and budget problems at home, the areas where the U.S. have the most wiggle room is in fact politics and military. It is thus not a surprise that the U.S. is thinking in terms of joint military exercises with Philippines or Vietnam and to sell weapons to them. It is not a surprise that America is trying to inject herself into East Asian regional bodies.

International relations are really about benefits; they are not governed by loyalty. Don’t forget the fact that the Vietnamese are still suffering from the effects of agent orange; not to mention the millions of death at the hands of the U.S.. The Philippinos were invaded by the U.S. in the 1890s after trying to shake off other European colonialists.

With a fast growing China, Vietnam and Philippines are understandably relying on the U.S. for some backing. But it would be naive to think those two countries think everything are within their control. Everything is dynamic. China and U.S. have common interests too, and such could easily trump arrangements with the smaller countries. And I would bet Vietnam and Philippines watch northeast Asia judiciously.

Remember last year when the U.S.S. aircraft carrier George Washington was lurking around doing joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan? Russian military interrupted one of the exercises and President Medvedev personally visited one of the Kuril Islands under dispute with Japan and declared expansion in economic development as well as weapons deployment on it. I made the case Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was likely forced to resign due to mishandling that situation with Russia.

The fact that Washington sailed within striking distance of Beijing, and remember, this is China’s capital city we are talking about, is going to solicit a response too. On one hand the U.S. goal was to demonstrate to the world she can brandish her military prowess under China’s nose. And, certainly, Beijing was reminded of that. Maybe Washinton D.C.’s more direct goal was to target North Korea and apply pressure there as they transition to a new leader. But for China, that only solidifies her resolve in research efforts into a supposed hypersonic ballistic missile that could take down a carrier battle group.

The earthquake and ensuing tsunami very quickly changed the priorities for Japan – at least in terms of what the government is capable of dealing with. Did the U.S. confront Russia on that escalation? And I think the lesson the Japanese government must have learned is that they need to keep their paramount interests in mind. In the case of the Kuril Islands, not to provide excuses to the Russians for taking unilateral action which worsens Japan’s positions.

Remember that South Korea and Japan have land disputes too. In a recent poll, a significant number of Korean children think Japan and U.S. are their enemies.

. . . 45% of Korean children apparenently consider their nation’s principle enemy to be Japan, with less than half as many considering North Korea as grave a threat and a further 20% actually believing the USA is a worse enemy than either of them . . .

The question one must ask is this: despite the alliance between Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. for more than half a century, how is it that the two smaller nations are not able to mend their fence? Why do the Korean children feel that way towards Japan? How is it that the land dispute between Japan and South Korea are not resolved? My opinion is that the U.S. is not interested enough despite her sway or simply not capable enough.

All claimants to the South China Sea islands must find an equitable way to move forward. And I actually think that is the easiest position to agree on.

That would be the proper lens for which the various players see each other.

From the Hidden Harmonies China Blog

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