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US-China relationship is expected to remain competitive going forward Image Credit: Reuters

China and US interests jangle more in East Asia and the Western Pacific than any other theatre. The US, as a status quo power, promotes what it describes as a ‘rules-based order.’

As an ascending power, China is understandably uncomfortable with an order imposed by the victors of the WW II. The US, like in any game of power politics, wants to restrain China’s rise.

Three disputes in East Asia — among others — test their relations at present.

The American posturing over Taiwan causes the greatest concern even though the US accepts ‘One China’ policy, and acknowledges Beijing as the legitimate government of the province.

After US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent controversial visit to Taiwan, the US, crossed the line of ‘strategic ambiguity’ over the issue when President Biden announced that the US would respond militarily if Taiwan felt threatened.

Having triggered the crisis and raising the threat level, the US then tried to calm waters, claiming that “nothing (has) changed — one iota of the US government’s policy toward Taiwan.”

reefs in the disputed Spratlys
South China Sea is estimated to have billions of barrels of untapped oil Image Credit: AFP

South China Sea

The other area where American policies are in direct clash with China is the South China Sea (SCS) — from where a third of global maritime trade (valued roughly at $3 trillion) passes annually. In 2012, the Chinese estimated that the SCS contains 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The US estimates, released a year later put the figure at 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In 2015 alone fish caught in SCS constituted more than 12 per cent of the total global supplies.

On top of that is China’s ‘nine dash line’ claim, based on history. This is 1,200 nautical miles away from mainland China but puts Beijing in dispute with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China, Vietnam and the Philippines have, to a varying degree, built up facilities over some of the contested islets and rocks, demonstrating their physical presence.

The US and its partners like Australia, Britain and France challenge China by conducting ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations within 12 miles of some of the islets inhabited by the Chinese.

US-China outreach to ASEAN

As far as ASEAN nations and other countries in the Asia-Pacific are concerned, China and the US approach it differently. For China it is mostly about economics. But for the US, it is about security, politics and economics.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has assured the international community that commercial shipping is guaranteed in the SCS.

The sovereignty of Diaoyu/Senkaku archipelago in the East China Sea too is contested between China and Japan. Of the eight islets, three are essentially barren rocks and span about 7 sq km in total.

Located close to key shipping lanes, they could lie near potentially huge reserves of oil and natural gas deposits, based on a 1969 UN report.

After surveys in 1885, Japan claimed that these islets belonged to no one, but Tokyo incorporated the islands into its territory during the first Sino-Japanese War and has been administering them since then.

From 1945 until 1972 however, these islands remained under American occupation, when they reverted to Japanese administration, following the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

Disputed islands

China says that the islands have been part of Chinese territory since the 14th century. Tensions however, flared in 2012 when the Japanese government bought three of the islets from the private owner, proclaiming direct rule. The change of status sparked anti-Japanese protests in China.

In November 2013, China set up an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea asking foreign planes to abide by Chinese rules when entering the airspace over the disputed islands.

Crises management talks between China and Japan have been stalled. While Shinzo Abe nationalist rhetoric has hardened Japan’s posture, declaration by President Obama (Back in 2014) in a joint press conference with Shinzo Abe that the US — Japan Defence Treaty covers these islands makes US a party to the conflict. Should a clash escalate, this self-declared legal obligation could draw the US into the conflict.

This further complicates China-US relations and puts regional states in a quandary.

As the biggest mercantile nation, China needs to in control its sea lanes. And Beijing will wait for a peaceful resolution of all these disputes at an appropriate time.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries.