Thursday, August 5, 2010

Containment Redux?

Maybe it's just me, but looking back at the past few weeks of U.S. activity in East Asia, I can't help but wonder if we have a quiet sort of containment policy against China going in the region. There just seems a pattern, not just of the United States being more assertive in Asia, but of making moves to counter Chinese influence.

The first item to get my attention was the Obama administration completely ignoring China's objections to the joint U.S. - South Korea Invincible Spirit exercises that followed the Cheonan incident with North Korea. While the obvious purpose of the war games was deterring North Korean aggression (a tepid response to their sinking of a South Korean vessel, if there ever was one), it also serves to remind China that their are other powers with not only interests in the region, but with the ability to project enough power to protect their interests.

A second tidbit was the United States' offer to mediate territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  The PRC claims sovereignty over all of the waters and small islands in this highly populated area, and like with Tibet and Taiwan tries to fall back on a dubious historical basis to bolster its claims.  The Chinese government magnanimously says it will allow interested parties access to the sea lanes, but, of course, it is going to decide who has legitimate interests.  As much as an effort to reduce tension in the South China Sea, this is also a way for the United States to gain influence by supporting the smaller regional powers against China's territorial ambition.

The third puzzle piece showed up today.  The United States is negotiating a deal to help Vietnam develop nuclear power, including its own fuel enriching facilities.  For its part, Vietnam says it does not want to develop weapons-grade nuclear material because that would make China nervous, inviting it to become militarily involved in Vietnam.  While the Vietnamese won their border war with China in 1979, the outcome these days is far from certain, and you don't ask for a war you just can't win.  Still, the American negotiators indicate that China is not part of the nuclear power discussions since the deal is between Vietnam and the United States.  I find the negotiators' bluntness in saying that it wasn't any of China's business really interesting, almost provocative.

Combine this with renewed engagement in Thailand and our traditional defensive partnership with Australia, and you might see an outline of a Chinese containment regime.  The question is whether this combination is just happenstance, or if the President's advisers see the PRC as a competitor that needs closer watching?

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