China and her Asian enemies: the battle for the Indo-Pacific territories

The Indo-Pacific region’s strategic sea lanes, rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves have made it a hot point for geopolitical rivalry and confrontation. The future of the region – which stretches from Eastern Africa to the Western Americas – depends on China’s resolve to realise its ambitions – and the degree to which her Asian counterparts will oppose them. The economic significance of the region continues to attract the attention of key stakeholders USA, China, India and Japan, adding layers of complexity.

In the midst of this geopolitical tapestry, China’s exponential rise has dramatically changed the Indo-Pacific’s dynamic. Through projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative, military upgrades and territorial ambitions, Beijing has become the architect of a new paradigm, causing security concerns, disputes and tensions that have tested the region’s peace. China’s extensive claims marked by the ‘nine dash line’, a U-shape border that engulfs huge portions of the South China Sea and overlaps the maritime zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The Philippines has been feeling the full extent of China’s challenging assertions in the South China Sea, especially following the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in The Hague, which invalidated China’s territorial claims. Despite the ruling, tensions have persisted, with ongoing incidents involving Chinese and Philippine vessels. Vietnam has also been subjected to China’s maritime ambitions, experiencing confrontations over fishing rights and oil exploration activities. Meanwhile, Malaysia and Brunei have found their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) encroached on by China’s assertive actions.

These maritime disputes – along with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and alliances with China, the cross-strait tensions with Taiwan, and the persistent sabre-rattling between India and China and ally Pakistan – underscore the significant challenge of maintaining regional peace. These disputes have not only strained bilateral relations but have also drawn international attention, underscoring the South China Sea as a critical flashpoint in Asia-Pacific security dynamics.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

The Korean Peninsula, marked by the 1950s Korean war, remains to this day an unresolved hotspot of volatility, with the North and South Koreas theoretically still at war. The North aligns with China and the South is supported by the US and allies, resulting in periodic confrontation. China, North Korea’s main ally, makes regional stability a priority. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is conscious of the potential for conflict causing either a huge refugee crisis spilling across its borders or the prospect of a totally US-led unified Korea sitting on the doorstep. North Korea’s aggravating nuclear and missile advancements have seen it subjected to myriad international sanctions. Major concerns still exist over North Korean miscalculations in testing nuclear weapons and the potentially catastrophic effects such errors could have on global stability.

Cross-strait relations: China and Taiwan

Relations between China and Taiwan have also been tenuous following the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The nationalist government retreated to Taiwan, leaving the Communist Party to form the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Taiwan has since conducted itself as a unique entity. However, China sees the country merely as a breakaway province that must be reunified with the mainland in line with its ‘One China’ policy. This policy states that all countries looking to establish credible diplomatic relations with the PRC must cut ties with Taipei. This has significantly limited Taiwan’s ability to operate as freely as its counterparts.

Taiwan’s ally, the US, also plays a role in this dispute in providing military support under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act – while officially refraining from recognising Taiwan as independent from China. Such support from the West, coupled with increasing arms sales and official state visits, has created tension between Beijing and Taipei, making the cross-strait relationship one the most serious and potential hotspots for conflict in the Asia-Pacific region in coming years.

The nuclear dimension of the India-China conflict

The Indian and Chinese border disputes are located deep in the rugged terrains of the Himalayas, where the Line of Actual Control (LAC) forms the natural official boundary between these two Asian superpowers. Stretching several thousand kilometres, ambiguity surrounds the LAC as a result of differing opinions as to its exact alignment, leading to numerous clashes. These contested border lines are not just territorial disputes, they are symptomatic of the macro strategic rivalry between these two nations, both of whom are looking to establish regional dominance. The strategic competition that can be seen in initiatives like India’s Act East Policy and China’s Maritime Silk Road reveals the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific as an arena of geographical competition with consequences for international security.

Conclusion

The Indo-Pacific finds itself in a historical landmark moment, dictated by China’s assertive agendas. The ongoing disputes in the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and India’s neighbouring border countries highlight the magnitude and complexity of achieving peace in an area rife with strategic opposition. The region’s future lies in the hands of China and how far it will go to fulfil its ambitions – and the extent to which its Asian adversaries will resist.

‘Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.’
Albert Einstein

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