Onus on US, China to resolve Asia’s disputes

Author: Andrew Billo, Asia Society

With China’s pronouncement of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), and South Korea’s subsequent response with an ADIZ of its own, territorial issues in the East and Southeast Asian region are only growing in complexity.

But when we consider how disruptive the spats are toward the region’s economies, it is logical that a path toward resolution is found.

Nevertheless, the disputes have often defied logic because of the fervent nationalistic policies of the claimant states, as well as a US pivot that failed to account for Chinese sensitivities. It seems inevitable, then, that the states involved will continue to bump shoulders with increasing frequency and force.

As I previously argued on Global Asia, there are several factors contributing to the disputes, all irrational.

Given that history is largely subject to interpretation between nations, it forms a weak basis for laying claim to disputed territory particularly in a region divided and re-divided by monarchies, colonialists, and myriad other governments. Nevertheless, history forms a significant component of each of the claimant states’ arguments.

While regional resource needs are growing, the quantity of resources available is still not fully known. Nevertheless, the mere possibility of there being significant energy resources in the contested territorial areas has exacerbated tensions. As near-shore fisheries are almost exhausted, increasingly states are also looking to contested waters to find seafood.

Most importantly, the disputes also threaten freedom of navigation, and a blockage in sea trade routes would disrupt the global economy substantially.

Now, as before, it is evident that China’s assertions are not conducive to creating an environment of cooperation. But, America’s involvement in the region also continues to embolden its allies to stand up against the world’s second-largest economy.

A US official accompanying Vice President Joe Biden on a recent Beijing trip said that America is ‘looking to China to take steps as we move forward to lower tensions, to avoid enforcement actions that could lead to crisis, and to establish channels of communication with Japan, but also with their other neighbours to avoid the risk of mistake, miscalculation, accident or escalation’.

But speaking just a few hours before in Japan, Biden called China out on its unilateral attempt to ‘change the status quo in the East China Sea’. He added that the ‘The world should not forget that our alliances have been critical for the stability that has made this region’s remarkable progress possible’. He said the US would ‘remain steadfast’ in its alliance commitments.
While Asian governments still welcome America’s willingness to come to their aid, in actuality the United States has lost some of its lustre. The US government shutdown in October, which paralysed the country for weeks and resulted in a cancelled visit by Barack Obama to the APEC summit in Bali, threw a wrench in the spokes of America’s strategic pivot. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, although sympathetic, commented at the time: ‘We prefer a US president who is able to travel and fulfil his international duties to one who is preoccupied with his national domestic preoccupations’.

On top of this, the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, which again failed to culminate in agreement this month, signal a blow to the finalisation of a major US-led trade initiative, one that notably excludes China.
But as much as the United States has responsibilities in its engagement with Asia, so too does China have a responsibility to show that it can move beyond its assertiveness of the last decade to engage more constructively.

Building on the US Vice President’s remarks from a recent meeting he held with business leaders in China, a New York Times article stated that, ‘China is rising, globalization is progressing, and systems are colliding’. We have now reached an ‘inflection point … a moment of dramatic change’.

If we are indeed at an ‘inflection point’, then all states — including China — need to act responsibly to ensure that the change is constructive. For the United States, it might be helpful to acknowledge that its rebalancing act to Asia came on too fast and too strong, and that pushing forward with its web of regional military alliances is counterproductive to the overall theme of eventual cooperation.

For China, its economic footprint is omnipresent. There is nary a market in the world where China doesn’t have a presence. But China also needs to recognise that it has in many ways already arrived as the world’s only other superpower. In this position, it cannot allow relations with its neighbours to denigrate further, even in instances where China is not the sole provocateur.

History is an especially limiting resource that is not beneficial to resolving disputes in Asia because it can be, and is, interpreted so differently. International law provides guidelines, but the world’s superpowers have been reluctant to fully succumb to its structures. This legacy makes moving forward with binding multilateral processes a challenge. It is therefore incumbent on Asian states to act responsibly while there are still resources in sufficient supply to negotiate a favourable outcome.

To that end, Asian governments must control nationalist forces and keep rhetoric grounded in reality. Non-Asian governments, chiefly the United States, need to be clear about the extent of their regional engagement. While America has offered support, it needs to follow-through on its commitments while remaining transparent about how far it is actually willing to go in defending its allies and risking damage to what will eventually be its largest trading partner, China.

Andrew Billo is a Singapore-based Associate Fellow with the Asia Society. Connect with him on Twitter @andrewbillo. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other institution or entity.