Wang Chong*

BEIJING - From the Huangyan Island, known also as the Scarborough Shoal, to the Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese territorial waters have been anything but calm. And inevitably, the shadow of the United States has been present behind all this. These so-called island disputes are actually a game between two great powers.

After a period of observation, the United States has finally showed its card. In reference to the Sino-Japan Diaoyu Islands dispute, America said that it “has no position,” that is, it will not be taking sides. But on the other hand, it explicitly pointed out that the Japan-US Security Treaty is applicable to the Diaoyu Islands. In other words, if China ever gets into conflict with Japan over the issue, it is America’s obligation to help Japan.

This has always been the consistent position of the United States over this issue. Last year, when I interviewed Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense at the time, during his visit to Beijing, he said the same words and gave some prerequisites. As long as the Diaoyou Islands’ administrative power belongs to Japan, the Japan-US Security Treaty would be applied. That is to say, though America takes no stand on these islands’ sovereignty, it nonetheless recognizes that executive power is attributed to Japan.

America is also actively involved in the Sino-Philippines dispute in the South China Sea. On July 12, the 19th ASEAN Regional Forum held a Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh. It is reported that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked China to agree to engage in “code of conduct” negotiations with legal binding effect over the issue, so as to “avoid disputes.”

The report also stated that Hillary Clinton pointed out that the states concerned need to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Yang Jiechi, China’s Foreign Minister, refuted this by saying that China’s actions are based on international law as well as historical precedent.

The Kyodo News Agency reported that conflict currently exists between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines over the South China Sea issue – and the intention of Hillary Clinton’s speech is to “contain China.”

Containing China is obviously America’s strategic intention. Historically any superpower has always harbored ill-feeling towards the developing power rising behind it. It fears being overtaken and losing its privileges. The magnificent Roman Empire and Great Britain were like this. America is certainly no exception.

Looking at its past behavior, the United States has always fulfilled its duty to its allies, whether it’s Japan, the Philippines or South Korea. I once talked to a senior American diplomat about the Korean Peninsula issue and I asked him what will America do if the two countries go to war? He told me without any hesitation that according to America’s agreement with South Korea, the United States will certainly send its troops.

However, if we look at specific issues, America treats its allies differently depending on its closeness to them, while also considering China’s reaction. To Japan, the United States intends to guide and assist it on one hand, while on the other hand it also intends to prevent it from re-emerging. The United States wishes to see Sino-Japanese disagreement, but not war, and that the two nations contain each other.

As for the Philippines, they are really just “perennial losers,” America doesn’t expect that it will pose China any threat, but just create some trouble. What the United States sees is that, through the South China Sea disputes, a united solidarity of the regional ASEAN countries is formed against China, so that ASEAN as a whole body will invite America to intervene in Asia-Pacific affairs.

All this is pretty obvious. The challenge for China is to determine where America’s bottom line is. That is, were China to go to war because of a territorial water dispute, how fast and to what extent would the United States intervene?

As for America, it urgently needs to know how much more patience China has, and what is the range covered by China’s “core interests”? Will China suddenly go to war in these disputes because of its domestic politics or economic factors?

By contrast, thanks to its powerful military strength, America holds a relatively clear attitude. A stabilized formation counterbalancing China in the Asia-Pacific would be agreeable to the United States whereas open conflicts would not be. As a commercial empire, stability is advantageous for its business. But a certain extent of tension is beneficial to its sales of arms.

Meanwhile the Chinese attitude over the past few years gives an erratic feeling. The low-profile tactics put forward by Deng Xiaoping have been overwhelmed by the uproar of nationalism thanks to China’ rising strength.

A few years back, because Chen Shui-Bian, the Taiwanese president was engaged in promoting Taiwan independence, pressure in the Taiwan Strait prevented Chinese mainland from attending to other affairs. With the stabilization of the Taiwan issue and the relative decline of America’s strength, China has designated the South China Sea as its core interest in 2010. The problem is that as long as it’s China’s core interest, the United States will always take a certain degree of measures in response.

Of course, whether it’s the Diaoyu Islands or Huangyan Island, China ought to adhere to its principles in territorial disputes. More importantly, on the basis of upholding its principles, it should be more confident and more transparent.

However, the Chinese people are more accustomed to gentleness rather than toughness. They are inclined to speak about principles rather than address specific matters. They tend to react according to the situation in a timely manner and to stay calm without haste. This is prone to cause some fantasies about China’s determination in defending its territories.

With the continuing territorial waters disputes, China’s strategy might need to be clearer. Since a Sino-US struggle is clearly unavoidable, China might as well set a clear objective and confidently inform America of its short-term, medium-term and long-term actions -- and under which circumstances will China “no longer restraint itself.”

This will at least reduce the chance of miscalculation and accidental conflict, and also dissuade countries such as the Philippines from pursuing their wild fantasies.

*Senior fellow at Beijing Foreign Studies University

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