Two recent developments in East Asia --- one in Northeast Asia and the other in Southeast Asia--- have brought to the fore some of the latent tensions in the region.
It was the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine in late March this year that escalated tensions in North East Asia. The dastardly North Korean attack, verified by a multi-national investigation in May, killed 46 sailors. The recently concluded US-South Korean military exercise that included a massive nuclear powered US supercarrier, was a potent show of force, in retaliation for the destruction of the Cheonan and the massacre of its crew.
The Cheonan episode has made it more difficult for the two Koreas and their neighbours and allies to hold negotiations on the question of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and other related matters. Nonetheless, once the political temperature decreases, it is important to resume talks in the larger interest of peace in the Korean Peninsula and in Asia and the world.
The second incident which occurred in Hanoi in the course of an ASEAN meeting in July 2010, revolves around the remarks made by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, about China and the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Her oblique criticism of China’s approach to territorial disputes over the chain of Islands has irked the Chinese government which sees her comment as an attempt to internationalise the issue. For the Chinese, the disputes, essentially competing sovereignty claims that pit their country against Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, should be resolved through bilateral negotiations. Because Hillary Clinton has now stated that the US has a “ national interest” in resolving the disputes, Beijing is suspicious that Washington is setting the stage for a more intrusive role in the South China Sea. To stop this from happening--- it will not be in the interest of the region—China should be more committed to resolving the disputes as soon as possible.
Underlying the Cheonan episode and the Hanoi incident, it is obvious, is a power play of immense significance between the US and China. The US, in pursuit of global hegemony, seeks to contain China. This is why it is determined to curb China’s growing economic and political clout. Taming North Korea is a way of sending a clear signal to its protector, namely, China. Similarly, by projecting itself into the territorial disputes of the South China Sea, the US is challenging China in its neighbourhood.
How this power play unfolds in the coming years is of vital concern to ASEAN.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar,
International Movement for a Just World (JUST).
3rd August 2010.