The China conundrum: To engage or contain?

China is central to the new reality of the Pacific; a profoundly poor country yet quite capable of holding us to ransom economically and politically. It is a country with an insatiable appetite for natural resources both in the energy sector and elsewhere, consuming half of the world’s cement, a third of its structural steel, a quarter of its lumber, soaking up oil and gas like never before.

We are all a product of the China phenomenon. If the Chinese economy falters, we suffer. If the Chinese environment fails, we pay the price. These are not simply issues confined to a corner of Asia. They are international in character. How are we to come to grips with them?

While China is remarkably poor, it has enormous influence and is on the rise. Not so long ago, we worried about a China that was too weak; now we worry about a China that is too strong. And it has enormous national ambition. It will be the world’s largest ship builder by 2015. It is already the largest producer of containers. It will be the second largest consumer of energy, of oil and gas. In virtually every sector, the Chinese have major and grand ambitions to lead the world.

This is part of a larger phenomenon. India and China have fundamentally reoriented their national axes of interest away from the interior towards the sea. The Indians have been most unambiguous in declaring their leadership in the Indian Ocean. Increasingly, we will see Indian and Chinese naval ambitions overlapping as the Chinese begin to move into the Indian Ocean, either deploying ships or developing ports and related facilities in places like Burma or Pakistan in support of the long range integrity of their energy flows. Similarly, we will see the Indian Navy continuing to grow with nuclear submarines and carriers, extending its influence into the Southeast Asia region, into China’s sphere.

Community contributions
What are the implications for the West? The United States has embraced the importance of the oceans commons. The reality, however, is that in the past 20 years the U.S. Navy has been cut in half. In the 1980s, we encountered the notion of the much-vaunted 600-ship navy. The Americans got to 580 ships but now are probably at about 282, and trying desperately to claw their way up to 313 by 2015 or 2018, a target they probably won’t reach given the huge costs of the war in Iraq and hostilities in Afghanistan.

Thus, one can expect a call to like-minded nations to contribute vessels to the maintenance and stability of the seas. The Americans are suffering from what British historian Paul Kennedy called imperial overstretch. They, like the Royal Navy a century ago in 1907, are desperately eager to draw on friends and relations to contribute to a larger ocean-going community. And behind that is an inchoate fear as to the extent of China’s ambitions, particularly in what is the quintessential maritime arena.

This is an ocean regime unlike any other on the face of the earth. The Atlantic, by comparison, is small, empty and non-confrontational. The Pacific is vast, complex and full of challenges. There are more than seventy outstanding maritime boundary disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. At probably no other time in human history has the maritime realm been so dynamic in terms of the flows of cargo and the growth of mega ports. Six of the top ten ports in the world are now in Asia.

Whether we look at the flows of energy, containers, shipbuilding, the growth of navies in terms of increasing their size and ability, whether we look at terrorism, piracy, submarines – and this is an increasingly rich submarine environment – this is where the centre of the world is now coming to reside.

Regional implcations
What does the rise of China mean for some of our traditional friends and relations in the region? For a decade and a half, Japan was like a vast supertanker without its rudder in heavy seas. They turned the wheel but nothing happened. Their economy remained stalled. Now there has been a fundamental change in the way the Japanese look at the world. On Aug. 31 1998, the North Koreans launched a missile, which took off across the Sea of Japan, crossed the main island of Honshu and plunged into the north Pacific. That was, I would argue, the 9/11 for Japan. Following 9/11 in the US, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi undertook, without any enabling legislation, to dispatch ships to the Indian Ocean in support of coalition operations in the region. With the speed of light, by Japanese standards, the Diet introduced and passed the requisite enabling legislation. And for the first time since the Second World War, the Japanese were deploying warships to the Indian Ocean.

This is acutely real for the Japanese; they are doing things that previously would have been totally, absolutely unthinkable. They see constant penetration into their water space by Chinese research and other vessels, including submarines. Their new priority is security. We’ve seen this in the rise of the Japanese defence agency to ministerial status, the plan to revise the 1946 constitution to eliminate the No War clause, the contribution to international peacekeeping, a campaign certain to be blocked by the Chinese to gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and sea-going ballistic missile defence with the Americans over and against North Korea.

And there is the arc of Southeast Asia, where terrorism of its various sorts is alive and well in Indonesia, Malaysia and even in places like Singapore. We can see this illustrated with maritime attacks in the Philippines.

We are faced with a region that is exceedingly dynamic, an area in which the legacy of history trumps international relations and in which 20th century nationalism is the order of the day. Whereas Europe has moved into a post-national era in which sovereignty has been voluntarily forfeited, East Asia is a region where relations are increasingly brittle between a number of the major players: between the two Koreas; between the Koreas and Japan; between the Japanese and the Chinese; with major threats to stability in places like Indonesia as a result of not only political fragmentation, but also of terrorism.

Canadian response
What does all this mean for Canadians? I would suggest that we have been on Prozac in terms of the reality of Asia. Thirty-eight percent of British Columbia’s trade prior to the 1997-1998 economic meltdown in Asia was with the region; four percent of Ontario’s trade was with Asia. That, in many ways, is a gross simplification because of the way trade and supply lines flow. But the fact remains that eastern Canada has been blissfully insulated from some of the new realities of Asia until fairly recently.

It is Asian autoworkers that are profiting in North America, not the traditional autoworkers of North America. It is increasingly Asian interests that will be buying up real estate. This is a new paradigm and we have to come to grips with it somehow.

Many of our decision-makers came of age in a profoundly Atlantic-centric era. I would suggest that we need to recalibrate our national and defence priorities. In many ways Asia has been perceptually and geographically a bridge too far; it’s been in the all-too-difficult file. The sheer physical comfort of visiting Rome or Brussels or London or Paris has been reassuring – Asia seemed too impenetrable, too unpredictable. And so we have consciously – or unconsciously – consigned it to another level. But we can no longer afford that luxury.

An expert in Asia-Pacific defence and security, Dr. James A. Boutilier is special policy advisor at Maritime Forces Pacific Headquarters in Esquimalt, BC. A Navy Reserve officer, he has taught at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, and at Royal Roads Military College and the University of Victoria.

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