Visiting China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning at the Yuchi Naval base in Qingdao April 7, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came offering peace and cooperation, only to find China’s bravado over its new naval prowess. “With the latest developments in China, it can never be contained,” said Gen Chaing Wanquan. Calling the U.S. “a country of worldwide influence, and the Pacific Ocean is huge enough to hold both China and the U.S. for common development and also hug enough to ho9ld the other Asia-Pacific countries,” Wanquan told Hagel, putting the U.S. on notice that they have clout in their own backyard. When the Chinese air force forced down a U.S. EP-3E surveillance plane on Hainan Island in the South China Sea April 1, 2001, it took a month for China to release the 24-member crew. China returned the EP-3E after dismantling it part-by-part to abscond the stealth technology.
Hagel was the first foreigner to inspect China’s re-treaded carrier, bought from Ukraine in 1998 as spare parts and rehabbed into its current shape. China bristled at Hagel’s suggesting that he wanted to “manage competition” in the Pacific Rim, where China routinely bullies its neighbors. Now in an active dispute with Japan over the Senkaku [Japan] and Diaoyu [China] Islands in the East China Sea, Hagel met in Tokyo April 5 with Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, assuring Japan that the U.S. would defend any attack by China. When you consider Russian President Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea March 1, the U.S. has lost credibility, especially as it relates to defending allies. China’s has a long memory of Japan’s atrocities in Manchuria and elsewhere before WW II, including documented reports of rape, torture, slaughter, even cannibalism by Imperial Japan.
Stepping into China and Japan’s longstanding disputes puts the U.S. in a no-win situation, where both countries need to resolve their issues without U.S. interference. Meeting at a join press conference with Hagel, Gen. Chaing railed against Japan, Philippines and Taiwan, all U.S. allies. Hagel blamed China for creating an “air-defense identification zone” in the East China Sea over the disputed islands, pushing the region closer to military confrontation. “That adds to tensions, misunderstandings and could eventually add to and eventually get to a dangerous conflict,” said Hagel, urging China to show restraint. Showing off its new aircraft carrier, China put the U.S. on notice that they’ve got real competition for naval supremacy in the Pacific Rim. Hagel urged China to respect its neighbors, not intimidate them by threatening armed conflict if other less powerful countries don’t stand down.
Despite the strong trade relationship with China, the U.S. continues to back Japan in territorial disputes with China, especially the recent row over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands. China’s new aircraft carrier gives the bravado to claim naval superiority around the Pacific Rim. “You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation, whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe,” said Hagel, lecturing China about its use of military power. When the U.S. preemptively attacked Afghanistan  and Iraq , no matter what the excuse, it violated the “territorial integrity and sovereignty” of U.N.-recognized nations. Telling China to show “restraint” rings hollow to major powers. Hagel walks a dangerous line lecturing China on appropriate international relations. China wants no part of any joint military involvement with Japan’s armed forces.
Resolving China’s relationship with Japan clearly goes beyond Hagel’s pay grade. Before jumping to Japan’s defense, U.S. officials should show more sensitivity to China’s long festering history with Imperial Japan, especially Japanese atrocities in Manchuria after invading Sept. 19, 1931. “Japan is making provocative comments on China, and China is exercising restraint to the maximum,” said Chaing, disputing that they’ve become the Asia-Pacific bully. China’s foreign policy establishment makes controversial statements that don’t necessarily suggest military action. “If you concluded that China is going to resort to force against Japan that’s wrong. On the Chinese side we’ll no take initiatives to stir up troubles but we aren’t afraid of any provocation,” said Chaing, telling the real story behind China’s bravado: China wants the U.S. and its allies to show appropriate respect.
Nearly 70 years after WW II, U.S. foreign policy must get up to speed with new alliances and old hatreds. Whatever the history with China, Japan, Taiwan. South Korea and Philippines must work on improving their own relationship. While there’s value to old treaties, there’s also danger in taking sides, especially when China has become and interrelated piece of the U.S. economy. When Hagel talks of his “pivot to Asia,” he needs to be mindful of how old alliances have morphed into a new global relationships where China doesn’t like feeling on the wrong side of U.S. alliances. “The China-U.S. relationship is essential to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region in the 21st century,” said Hagel, reaffirming the evolving nature of U.S. foreign policy in the Pacific Rim. Whether admitted to or not, U.S. foreign policy is best served dialing down controversial public rhetoric.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’d editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.