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Wednesday, July 25

Oops! China feeling encircled

After spending years doing it all it could to encircle India, China's defense establishment is complaining that it's feeling encircled by a "pack" of Asian countries. Guess who China is blaming for the pack's increasing boldness.

The irony is that for years, there's been growing and increasingly unified opposition in East Asia/Pacific to China's muscle-flexing in the region. But President Barack Obama's "Asia pivot," which seems to have bipartisan support in Washington, has given China's leaders the perfect excuse to shift blame to the United States, and more importantly to downplay the fact that China's "Peaceful Rising" has increasingly been seen by its neighbors as a sneaky strategy to grab territory and bully them.

So my question is whether the widely advertised Asia pivot has been premature. It's just a question at this point because I've been so focused on the Afghan War that I haven't been closely following the ASEAN region. But I remember thinking when I first heard of the Asia pivot, 'Whatever happened to Mr Obama's "Leading from Behind" policy?'

Perhaps that policy is selectively applied according to some arcane formula -- granted, one of the privileges of a superpower. Yet as a general rule, when several countries are working up a head of steam about a country in their region that's trying to impose its will on them, it's wise for a superpower to wait until there's no way it can be blamed for the situation before talking about a pivot.  The rule applies in particular when the superpower is all too happy to see the bullying country come down a peg or two.

To apply the rule in this instance: if the United States is wading too soon into the South China Sea disagreement, this threatens to put countries in the region that are standing up to China in the counter-productive position of being seen as American lackeys. 

Reuters India, July 26 (IST)
China's hawks gaining sway in S. China sea dispute
By David Lague in Hong Kong
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington

China has adopted a more aggressive stance in recent weeks on territorial disputes in the South China Sea as hard-line officials and commentators call on Beijing to take a tougher line with rival claimants.

China's supreme policymaking body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is made up entirely of civilians, but outspoken People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers, intelligence advisers and maritime agency chiefs are arguing that Beijing should be more forceful in asserting its sovereignty over the sea and the oil and natural gas believed to lie under the sea-bed.

Most of them blame the United States' so-called strategic "pivot" to Asia for emboldening neighbouring countries, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, to challenge China's claims.

"China now faces a whole pack of aggressive neighbours headed by Vietnam and the Philippines and also a set of menacing challengers headed by the United States, forming their encirclement from outside the region," wrote Xu Zhirong, a deputy chief captain with China Marine Surveillance, in the June edition of China Eye, a publication of the Hong Kong-based China Energy Fund Committee.

"And, such a band of eager lackeys is exactly what the U.S. needs for its strategic return to Asia," he wrote.

Most Chinese and foreign security policy analysts believe China wants to avoid military conflict across sea lanes that carry an annual $5 trillion in ship-borne trade, particularly if it raises the prospect of U.S. intervention.

However, they say Beijing is increasingly determined to block any unified effort from rival claimants to negotiate over disputes, preferring instead to isolate much smaller and weaker states in direct talks.

There was evidence of this harder line at an annual foreign ministers' meeting of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc earlier this month where diplomats said China's influence behind the scenes led to an unprecedented breakdown in the grouping's traditional preference for maintaining an appearance of harmony and unity.

The meeting in Phnom Penh ended in disarray without progress on a proposed code of conduct that was aimed at minimizing the risk of conflict in the South China Sea or issuing a concluding communique.

China's close ally Cambodia, the meeting's host, blocked every attempt to include tensions in the South China Sea on the agenda, said the diplomats from other member nations.
Later in the analysis it's brought out that American wonks who watch China disagree on whether the hardliners on the S. China Sea issue are limited to China's defense establishment; some believe this is the case, others think the hardening stance is also reflected in China's civilian government.

One thing is clear at this point: China's leaders, both civilian and military, see the need to mount a strong response to the Obama administration's strategic pivot to Asia.

For a background summary on China's maritime policy, including an explanation of the "Nine-Dash Line," see the July 17 report for Stratfor by Rodger Baker and Zhixing Zhang, The Paradox of China's Naval Strategy.

The consequence of the Asian pivot - and it was indeed a major coup for Hillary - will probably be war with China.

That's what military alliances lead to..the end of the Cold War was an exception.

And South Asia is inherently unstable.
B -- I am getting a really bad feeling about the Obama/Hillary era in U.S. foreign policy. Out of the corner of my eye, while I was focused almost exclusively on the Afghan War, I noticed that they were pursuing agendas on the FP front that might have been aimed more at throwing bones at various parts of the Democratic base than representative of a coherent policy.

A possible example is Hillary's announcement a few weeks ago that the U.S. was suspending aid to all governments, including Uganda's, that supported biased social responses to "LBGTs" -- lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transgenders.

The Ugandan gov furiously retorted that the Obama was trying to appease American supporters of 'Gay rights' because it didn't dare emphasize the issue in the USA in the run-up to the presidential election -- and thus, was pushing for gay rights outside the USA as a sop to the Americans who complain that the Obama admin isn't doing enough for gay rights in the USA.

It does seem the policy of suspending aid over the issue is selective; I doubt the US will suspend aid to Pakistan over the issue of gay rights. But I don't know whether the Ugandan gov's accusation is true.

However, if the China pivot has more to do with appeasing Dems who want a tougher trade line with China than Obama is prepared to initiate, for domestic reasons, or if it's to throw a bone to conservatives who want a tougher line on China, this is getting into dangerous territory, as your mention about the prospect of war suggests.

Of course the practice of using FP initiatives to appease a segment of a domestic political party is not new in America. But in this era, the practice can quickly spawn unintended consequences, giving the White House no time to muster an effective response.
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