Trying not to choose
A region pulled between China and America
East Asia is the scene for an unprecedented experiment in international relations. Never before have so many countries been so intertwined economically with one big power (China) while looking to another (America) as the ultimate guarantor of their security. So far the experiment has seemed a stunning success. For 40 years, America has not just kept the peace; it has enabled a continental economic boom. And the biggest beneficiary of that has been China. Yet that order is now fraying, as China chafes under what it sees as an American-led world order that is impeding its rise and its natural regional predominance. In 2016 the tensions that this fraying produces may become acute, posing awkward questions for other countries in Asia.
When Xi Jinping, China’s president, paid his first state visit to America in September 2015, the two countries were already at odds on a number of issues: the perennial bugbears such as China’s human-rights record and repression in Tibet and Xinjiang; and new concerns over cyber-security and the militarisation of space. The visit was marked, as always, by an effort to stress areas of co-operation, for example on climate change; but the two big powers are now rivals in a growing number of spheres. Asia is where the rivalry is most intense. It will become more so in 2016 for three main reasons.
First, the two countries are doomed to worsening disagreement in the South China Sea. In a two-year building spree, China has been creating artificial islands in disputed waters—claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines or Vietnam (and sometimes all three). America takes no position on the sovereignty over these scraps of rock and reef. But it insists that, under the international law of the sea, man-made structures are not entitled to “territorial waters”—the 12-nautical-mile stretch of sea the law attaches to land features. America wants to assert its right to the “freedom of navigation” by sending warships into these waters, and airforce aeroplanes to fly over them. China regards this as provocative.
via Trying not to choose.