In the Western Pacific, the prospect of conflict between the People’s Republic of China and one of its neighbors is steadily moving from frightening scenario to reality. China’s rise in influence, economic and military strength, as well as its ability to project power, is causing heightened tensions in the WestPac. Recent PRC actions in the South China Sea have alarmed China’s neighbors and is helping to usher in a large scale Japanese military modernization and buildup. The Republic of the Philippines is following suit, albeit at a pace and level commensurate with the PI’s (Philippine Islands) economic capabilities.
The catalyst for these two buildups in particular, has been China’s assertion of control over a vast area of the South China Sea (SCS) and portions of the East China Sea. The Senkaku Island crisis continues to simmer. In January, 2014, on the heels of the creation of an ADIZ, China has passed a series of new fishing laws that require foreign fishermen to seek Beijing’s permission to fish a wide area of the South China Sea. The SCS is an area rife with intersecting territorial claims and disputes. The PRC’s latest move is lessening the stability and security of the region. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have territorial claims in the SCS.
In the absence of effective resistance, China’s moves are likely going to grow bolder. The Philippines and other SCS nations can do little on their own to counter PRC fishing incursions into what they consider to be sovereign territorial waters, for example. Their diplomatic influence and military capabilities are negligible and ineffective when compared to the PRC. The United States is the great equalizer. If the US fails to play a consistent role in the South China Sea crises, there is little to dissuade China from continuing on its current path. Thus far, the US has done just that.
The US response to the rise of PRC power has been undemonstrative, and at times contradictory. The pivot to Asia has not been an act of visible policy change and power projection. Instead, the pivot has been gradual and at times lacking direction. Certainly not an encouraging sign for America’s allies in the region. As much as the US tries to downplay or even minimize the situation in the WestPac and SCS, China’s actions say otherwise. It’s understandable why Washington does not want to do anything which could increase tensions between the US and PRC. Having said that, the United States needs to reassure friendly nations in the Western Pacific that if push comes to shove, the US will be there to support them because as time goes on, the possibility of an armed conflict in the SCS or East China Sea increases.