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China Rising:  Avoiding A Clash of Civilizations

The situation at present in Asia is one of a shifting balance, the U.S. and its allies on one side trying to maintain the status quo, and on the other side of the scale, China, seeking to change it.  Each camp has invested alot towards their present position, so each has alot to lose if a conflict were to occur.  The way things currently stand, tensions are rising and the U.S. and China seem to be on a collision course.  In other words, it seems like unless something changes some kind of a conflict will occur, I think within five years.  But what can be done to avoid this?

The truth is, the best way to avoid such a confrontation would be for representatives from all involved parties to sit down and try to arrive at a compromise in the situation.  However, to do this one must consider what each side wants and then figure out what would at least approximate that enough to cause everyone to abandon potentially conflict-causing behaviors.

What the U.S. wants and difficulties

As stated before, the U.S. is in favor of maintaining a status quo, one where regional allies are allowed to exist without threat and retain their territorial claims.  The difficulty with this is these territorial claims include islands and stretches of ocean that are also claimed by China.  In the South China Sea, this involves many of the Spratley and Paracel islands, some which already have on them contigents belonging to The Phillipines, Vietnam, or Taiwan, or at least have claims filed by other nations in the area also including Brunei and Malaysia.  In addition to this, China has a presence on some islands that are claimed by various nations, or has been engaging in provocative acts in areas nearby.  One recent incident involved the movement of a Chinese oil rig into an area claimed by Vietnam.  This lead to a standoff between Vietnamese boats and Chinese vessels, something that could have easily evolved into a war.

Another potential flashpoint can be found in the East China Sea.  There, a chain of islands called the Senkaku (in Japanese) lie.  These islands are currently administered by Japan and have been for many decades.  Nevertheless, China feels that these islands ought to belong to them per ancient maps showing the islands as Chinese (named by them as Daioyu).

What China wants and their strategy

It can be said that China wants two things in the current standoffs it is involved in:  the territory, and recognition as a major power.  The main argument for the territory claimed in the South China Sea is a map with the now-infamous Nine-Dash Line.  The line covers nearly all of the South China Sea and cuts well into the Exclusive Economic Zones of many of the nations near it.  The East China Sea claim is argued based on 14th century maps showing the islands as Chinese.  Both claims are not supported by international law, but I will get into that more later.

Recognition is a big thing on China's list.  In the past, China was seen as being an emerging market and only a regional military power.  Now, China has a more robust economy and is hoping to be regarded as a superpower militarily.  Having an increased standing militarily means standing tall in its neighborhood, and part of that is seeming to weigh heavily when compared to the U.S.

China's strategy so far has been one of "salami slicing" or "creep," slowly edging in and attempting to plant a physical presence on or near territory it wants.  In the South China sea, this has involved putting soldiers, harbors, and airstrips on islands, sending fleets into disputed waters, and making loud arguments about the validity of the Nine-Dash Line.  In the East China Sea, this has involved putting up an Air Identification Zone covering the islands and nearby ocean, sending ships (military and fishing) and planes out to the islands.

A big part of China's strategy also involves expanding and upgrading its military.  Military procurements have been high, and the navy has received a large share of that.  China has recently even floated its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.  Major new cruiser designs have been drawn up, new submarines have been both bought and built, and new missile types have been manufactured.  Missiles like the DF-21D, known to many as the "carrier killer," give China the ability to intimidate its neighbors with the size and quality of its forces while also boasting capabilities for potentially fighting off the U.S. in a conflict, or at least denying the area near its coastline to opposing forces.  Part of Chinese capabilities also are centered on space, both outer and cyber (China has developed the ability to shoot down satellites, and has cyber warfare assets working to hack organizations in the U.S.).  Finally, China is finishing design work on its first stealth aircraft, as well as drones.  All of these things make China seem a heavyweight to its neighbors, and a potentially lethal combatant for the U.S.

A potential solution

The various positions that are forming, those of the different countries, need to agree on some kind of compromise in order to avoid future escalation, which will occur if something isn't done now to defray the building tensions.  The best solution I can see would be to use the precedent of international law as the main guide for awarding the territory in each sea, and further emphasizing that kind of approach to deter China from seeking war as a solution.  Showing all side present the benefits of a continued peace and the great opportunity cost of war (the potential loss of life, the impact it would have on the local and global economies, how public opinion might be effected, etc.) would go a long way towards making war look unattractive.  What precedents in particular should be minded?  Recent precedents of possession of land directly by a power combined with historic (but from near history) records of how land has been possessed and administered by different powers.  This would emphasize the status quo of things after World War II with regards to who had what, with the South China Sea being split up and administered by all involved countries per current island possession plus international definitions of the Exclusive Economic Zone and the distance from coastal land that is traditionally regarded as territorial waters.  The Senkaku would be left to Japan, perhaps unattractive to China but would be balanced out by the seeming gains it would have in the South China Sea.  It is also important that the various countries involved each draw a red line for what would be intolerable conduct.  This would make clear what would be permissible for each country, and would avoid any dangerous miscalculations or inaccurate second guessing.  Forming the Pacific equivalent of NATO and supplying members of the alliance with defensive weapons would help raise the stakes and deter China from escalating things further.

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