The atmosphere in East Asia is chaotic these days. The never-ceasing debates over the resource-rich islands of the South China Sea has flared up dramatically in the past week, the wife of Bo Xilai, a prominent Chinese Communist Party official, was sentenced to death earlier this month for the murder of a British businessman, and to top it all off, the future leader of China was missing for two whole weeks without any knowledge of his whereabouts.
What does this mean for the rest of the world? Many believe we are seeing the beginning stages of a more assertive and aggressive China, a China that will seek to overthrow the established international order and created something in its own image. Others believe that China will seek to work within the established boundaries of international order while seeking to expand its influence in its own backyard. One thing is for certain: the rise of China (economically, militarily, and politically) is creating a new set of questions that are causing many of the major world powers (both those located in Washington as well as the Pacific region) to be increasingly uncomfortable in their dealings with the Middle Kingdom.
The South China Sea is a vast region of ocean that contains both important shipping lanes as well as large deposits of valuable resources, natural gas being chief amongst them. Several powers, including China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, lay claim to the islands and their respective maritime surroundings. This uneasy power struggle has erupted into heated dispute several times in the past; the difference now is that China has become the unquestionably preponderant power in the region and brings more leverage to the bargaining table than any other nation. Without outside intervention, it is very likely that China has the capability to forcefully lay claim to the islands if it so desires.
Viewed from the lens of great power struggle, one can see this as the opening salvo in the long awaited struggle between the United States and China, the two most powerful nations in the entire world and mutual contenders for global hegemon. While there have been several attempts to calm the fires, not much progress has been made between the two nations. Xi Jinping, the presumptive future leader of China, refused to meet with Secretary Clinton on her final tour of Asia as US Secretary of State. Mrs. Clinton herself attended the 2012 Pacific Island Forum, where the main topic of discussion was the emerging power struggle in the sea. At the same time, protests have erupted all over China against the perceived encroachment of foreign threats, some even calling for open war against Japan over territorial dispute.
As the US draws closer to its allies in the East Asian region and begins to divert its resources from the rest of the world to the Pacific, the next few years will be crucial in determining the future of the international system. One thing is certain for those of us who closely follow the events going on in East Asia: the ball is now in China’s court, and the rest of the world has to be prepared for whatever is to come.