South China Sea: Revival Of The Cold War And Balance Of Power? – Analysis


By Anu Krishnan

Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has digressed from his hardliner approach by extending the olive branch to China over the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. China, however, has chosen to maintain its vigorous stance over the disputed islands. Japan is essentially backed by the US, whose key concern in the Asia-Pacific today is to neutralise the Chinese threat rationale. Does this imply a possible Cold War with tensions building up, and both sides not desiring an escalation of the conflict?

Japan’s Goodwill Act?

The SCS has been in turmoil for long, with forces of nationalism threatening regional security. China’s overlapping claims with Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea and Vietnam make it increasingly evident that small nations can trouble big powers in bigger ways than expected. All these nations have overlying claims over the Spratly, Paracel, Dokdo and Diaoyu Islands in the SCS with China. China has remained active – militarily and politically – with its growing power and ambitions inevitably translating into military power. Its aggressive stance on territorial issues, supplemented by its defence modernisation, is a matter of paramount concern for the regional powers. Japan’s softened approach of seeking negotiations by sending a message of goodwill to Beijing was prompted by the US. However, it does not suggest a withdrawal of Japan’s claims on the disputed Senkaku Islands.

The Role of the US

China’s dynamic stance has prompted the other regional powers to seek counterbalancing strategies. Enhancing their maritime security ties is one way to achieve stability; the other is to link themselves to the other big power in the background, the US. This essentially provides ground for Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy. It is a response to China’s growing force, a strategy to secure allies in the region to engage with, both economically and politically. The US position is thus consolidated in the region. In former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words, “This (pivot) has been about creative diplomacy.”

Three of the nations engaged in territorial disputes with China are strategic partners of the US. The US-Japan partnership has been revitalised; the US keenly looks upon Vietnam as an important strategic partner and the US-Philippines’ relations have been steadfastly improving in the last few years. Mutual Defence Treaties signed separately with Japan and Philippines hold the US duty-bound to intervene in case of an offence. Manila has already conveyed that it expects Washington to come to its aid, if the conflict were to escalate.

Obligations in this regard, and its own interests in the region, have drawn the US into playing a pivotal role in the region. It is in the country’s interest to not let the conflict escalate. Peace and growth in East Asia are the essentials of the pivot. While on one hand the priority is to counter an assertive China, the US does not want to risk losing entry into an integrated trading economy that China would facilitate. There is an uneven balance of security and economy.

The US, however, will not detract its attention on the Asia-Pacific. Too much is at stake, economically and on the security front. An absence of US presence and support would prevent the threatened nations from making decisions free of coercion, which would subsequently result in increased Chinese aggression and assertion in the region. As long as this policy stays, the US will be looked upon for security and protection by the states threatened by China’s power and might. These circumstances lead one to suspect the revival of a Cold War-like scenario.

Semblance of the Cold War

The patrolling, flexing of military muscle and water shows being demonstrated in the SCS will probably continue for a long time. The deliberate attempts at avoiding armed conflict and simultaneously being assertive invokes strong tensions between China and other contending nations. A parallel can be drawn to the arms race of the Cold War. Both the blocs then, were aware of the catastrophic results of a nuclear war and hence, restricted themselves to building their arms stockpile. The purpose remained the same – to exhibit their might.

Balance of power was an integral part of the Cold War. The NATO and Warsaw Pact were created in attempts to maintain a bipolar balance of power. Similarly, alliances across continents are being sought as a means to balance power against China. The US-Japan alliance is being invigorated; it has been recognised by Shinzo Abe’s government as the key aspect to maintaining stability in East Asia. Defence cooperation between the two countries is under review for improvisation. Abe is also dedicated to strengthening Japan’s military, with renewed attention to Japan’s military budget. Its strong assertion for its right to collective self-defence has made Chinese officials apprehensive.

The meeting of the heads of State of the US and Japan in Washington a few weeks ago sent across a strong message to China. Regional alliances are also strengthening themselves in an attempt to balance China. Japan and the Philippines have vouched to enhance their maritime security and presence in the SCS. These events seem to suggest the possibility of increased tensions, culminating in a new Cold War, with features consistent with the present security environment.

Anu Krishnan
Department of International Relations, Stella Maris College, Chennai


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

4 thoughts on “South China Sea: Revival Of The Cold War And Balance Of Power? – Analysis”

  1. This is garbage propaganda. What olive branch exactly did Abe extend to China?

    Let’s remember it was Japan that precipitated the crisis with the nationalization of the islands, probably as part of the US’s pivot containment policy of China.

    Yes, I know you Indians are really jealous and want to see China burn, but it isn’t happening. You’d have more fun gang raping your sisters than writing garbage like this.

  2. US Goading Japan into Confrontation With China
    Will Japan Take the Bait?
    by John V. Walsh, February 04, 2013
    Excerpt from above report
    The idea of Japan outdoing China in East Asia economically is a pipe dream, with or without the U.S. China has a population of 1.3 billion and Japan 130 million. To expect Japan to emerge as a serious challenge to China in the long term is like hoping that in the immediate future Canada with its 34 million can challenge the U.S. with 315 million. And China has a vibrant economy, an educated workforce and a culture to be reckoned with, from which Japan’s emerged and followed until it was “Westernized.”

    So what is Japan’s protection to be in the face of such a large and powerful neighbor? For one thing, Japan certainly has the wherewithal to deter aggression from any quarter with its advanced technology and its potential for nuclear weapons development. For another, China has no record of expansionism overseas even going back to 1400 when it was the world’s premier naval power but never conquered or established colonies or took slaves. But a large part of Japanese security lies in an increasing respect for international law with its emphasis on sovereignty. The concept of sovereignty in international law is the protection of small nations from the depredations of large ones. And ironically the principal threat to the idea of sovereignty comes from the United States and the West with their pre-emptive wars and “humanitarian” interventions, which trash the classical concept of sovereignty. Japan should be wary of dealings with such powers and supporting such ideas.

    For Japan to take the bait and be the cat’s paw for U.S. schemes in East Asia borders on the insane. And diplomatic exchanges between China and Japan in recent weeks following the Japanese elections show that many Japanese recognize this. They and the Chinese seem increasingly willing to work out differences in a structure of peace. We should hope so – and so should the Japanese. He who takes the bait is often left holding the bag.

  3. Over the past decade China invested substantial efforts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN+3 (ASEAN, plus China, Japan, and South Korea), and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Beijing negotiated a free trade agreement with ASEAN that provided for generous “early harvest” measures in the mid-2000s; the full agreement came into effect in 2010 and benefited all countries ASEAN,China,South Korea and Japan with economic development during and after 2008 financial crisis .With China’s “SET ASIDE TERRITORY DISPUTE AND EMPHASIZE ON WIN-WIN ECONOMIC COOPERATION” policy every country benefited from it. All these crisis happened only after US pivot to Asia,with US intentionally goading Japan,Philippine and Vietnam into Confrontation With China.All these are the result of “US dream of ruling the world” as the backbone of US foreign policy.

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