yokohama3The European nations are quite busy recently with Greek’s financial issues, the Ukraine conflict and the shaking Middle East. So is the US. The nuclear dispute with Iran, Israel’s strong reservations of America’s Iran politics, the Ukraine conflict, and the 2016 presidential elections all have distracted the US from other actually pressing matters.

Meanwhile China’s expansion politics in South Asia has nothing less than become daring. It has reportedly been expanding disputed reefs in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by reclamation work. So far China’s construction work has been confirmed on seven reefs.[1] China is also steadily firming up its quasi control in this contested area. It has already stated the policy of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (“One Belt One Road”), which enhances China’s connections with the Central Asian and the South East Asian countries.[2] The “String of Pearls Strategy” – beachheads in other countries – aims at spreading out its influence over the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The Chinese president Xi Jinping has visited Pakistan in April 2015 and signed huge investment projects in energy and infrastructure construction which also include the development of the Pakistani port of Gwadar in order to link China and the Middle East.[3] This connection could reduce China’s dependence on the Malacca Strait. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is but another step by China to firmly take the initiative.

Moreover, Epoch Times Japan reported in March 2015 that China is building a large underground nuclear base according to a Hong Kong based journal. This project was agreed upon in February 1992, started in March 1994, and is now scheduled to be finished by 2019. This underground nuclear base is called the “Military Great Wall”, starts in Beijing, and the total projected length of 9600 kilometers circles around 10 Chinese provinces. A double-track railway as well as four-lane and two-lane roads are being built. China first confirmed this huge project in 2009 but the planned end of 2020 was rescheduled to 2019 to meet the 70th anniversary of the foundation of China.[4]

The projects between China and Pakistan could have a positive aspect, i.e., restrain terror activities and contribute to regional security because China fears domestic Islamic separatists connect with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since the US troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, the rise of Taliban power within and without Afghanistan cannot be ignored. China’s initiative to maintain a stable security situation in this area by means of developing economic markets might move India, Pakistan, the US and Russia to cooperate in anti-terrorism actions. However, this cooperation is based on keeping balance and checking each other’s presence. The situation in this region can be literally understood as ‘an enemy’s friend is a friend of mine”. Under such circumstances each actor needs to stay strong and determined; otherwise, others could easily overwhelm a weak actor. Particularly the ASEAN countries should be keeping a keen eye on China, thereby avoiding becoming too heavily financially dependent on China. China’s ever expanding actions in the South China Sea also give occasions to its neighbor nations to work together. For instance, Vietnam and the Philippines reportedly agreed upon doing joint military exercises and formalizing their strategic partnership very soon.[5] Even though their combined military power cannot compare to China’s, such united actions might frustrate China’s hegemonic behavior to some degree.

As for Japan, Japan could concentrate on restructuring and preparing for the coming era since it faces a shrinking population of ever more centralized citizens; as a consequence, the vulnerability to terror and military attacks rises. Japan could avoid as much as possible to take part in the power games in this region in spite of the just recently renewed defense guidelines between Japan and the US, and focus on defending its territory and investing in human capital as China did until recently. Japan will be patient, such as Japan did right after the Second World War to rebuild its industries. It might not be time yet for Japan to take part in assisting the US and its allies in the international area because the Japanese are neither mentally nor legally ready for it. Demographic and socio-economical changes could additionally hamper such military roles of Japan. Until Japan is ready to play its part assertively, the ASEAN countries’ determined behavior to establish and maintain a peaceful situation in this region is indispensable.

Therefore, the important thing for the ASEAN nations is that they should make every effort to propel economic growth and prosperity in their own countries as well as in Asia and act assertively to realize it, so as not to become a subordinate to China. They should try to balance between China and Japan, not jump on the bandwagon of China. The Asian countries should use both China’s intentions and financial offers to make their own profits, just as China does towards them.

 

About author:

Kumiko Ahr-Okutomo

Born in Japan.

 

She wrote her doctoral thesis, supervised by Professor Albert A. Stahel (Strategic Studies) at the University of Zurich, about power shifts in East Asia and Japan’s security politics. She is now a research associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies of Professor Stahel.

[1] The Asahi Shimbun: China Expands construction work on reefs in dispute with the Philippines, 19 March, 2015 [accessed 19 April, 2015] http://ajw.asahi.com/article/asia/china/AJ201503190079

[2] China Daily: ‘One Belt One Road’ headed for critical juncture, March 9, 2015 [accessed March 20, 2015] http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2015-03/09/content_19752300.htm

[3] The Guardian: China to unveil $46bn investment in Pakistan during visit by Xi Jinping, April 20, 2015 [accessed April 21, 2015] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/20/china-to-unveil-46bn-investment-in-pakistan-during-visit-by-xi-jingping

[4] Epoch Times Japan: Hong Kongshi, Chugoku Chikade Suparkyu no Kakukichi wo kensetsu (Hong Kong journal, China builds a super nuclear base in the underground), March 24, 2015. [accessed March 25, 2015] http://www.epochtimes.jp/jp/2015/03/html/d72918.html

[5] Jiji Press: Philippine , Vietnam Godougunjienshu de gouika, Minamishinakai no Chugoku keikai (The Philippines and Vietnam agree to do joint military exercises to guard against China in the South China Sea), April 25, 2015, [accessed April 26, 2015] http://www.jiji.com/jc/zc?k=201504/2015042500110&g=int