x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ship at the centre of a great power game

US and China vie for dominance in East Asia, with dispute over sinking of South Korean corvette a perfect illustration of superpower rivalry.

Wreckage of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, which was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.
Wreckage of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, which was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.

BEIJING // The debate about how to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula after South Korea's bid to have North Korea punished by the UN Security Council for sinking a navy ship, exposes an ongoing struggle between the United States and China for dominance in the region, analysts say. Since the torpedoing of the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette, in which 46 sailors died, South Korea, Japan and the United States have been pressing China, the North's long-time ally, to join them in meting out punitive measures against Pyongyang. An international investigation found North Korea responsible for firing the torpedo that sank the ship. The North denies the allegations. The argument over punishing North Korea has become increasingly public, with China attempting to portray the United States as the one behaving irresponsibly. Most recently, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a speech at the Asia Society in New York last week that he is "dismayed" by China's lack of support for efforts to pressure North Korea. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, rebuffed the comment, saying China has taken a "fair and responsible attitude". Mr Qin then turned the tables and called for countries to join China. "Our goal in handling this issue is to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula ? Therefore, we hope parties concerned can understand it and join us to properly handle the incident." Analysts say the ascendance of China as a regional and global power is shifting the balance of power in East Asia, as Beijing challenges the region's previously accepted security norms formulated by the US after the Second World War. "The Chinese are defining stability as not responding strenuously to the Cheonan incident. That's what they believe the best way to maintain stability to be," said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security programme at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. "We [the US] believe the best way to maintain stability is not doing an overly provocative response, but to demonstrate some punishment for North Korea's heinous act. "China doesn't want to accept the US definition of what it means to be a responsible power." China's reluctance to toughen its stance towards the North has been the focus of the debate, with both Washington and Seoul asking Beijing to support sanctions against North Korea over the Cheonan incident. Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk research and consulting firm, said China's claim to be playing a responsible role could be understood from the fact that its greatest incentive is to maintain stability. "The highest priority for the Chinese is to ensure there isn't any further attack. And the best [way] to do that is to keep calm and not to encircle North Korea." China has long countered US power in the region and recently rejected the idea of possible participation of the US aircraft carrier George Washington near the disputed inter-Korean sea border, the site for the sinking, in a "show of force" against North Korea. The area is close to China. Global Times, the international arm of the official People's Daily newspaper, warned against the move: "Having a US aircraft carrier participating in joint military drills off of China's coast would certainly be a provocative action toward China." "What the US is doing now is like jumping into the filthy water of disarray, by joining South Korea and further destabilising the situation," said Jin Jingyi, a North Korea expert at Peking University. "A responsible superpower should work to prevent an armed conflict, by calming down both sides." China fears that tightened sanctions against the North could cause the regime to collapse, a possible outcome of which is a unified, pro-US Korea housing thousands of US troops, South Korean and US analysts have said. Mr Cronin, formerly the director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington, said China's concept of "stability" is flawed. "When they give succour to actions like that of North Korea in the name of stability, they don't really do themselves a favour. I don't think that really helps the stability. The destabilising act by North Korea is probably the biggest source of instability in the region." China is not willing to be more cooperative in part because there is a contest for regional power between increasingly assertive and competent China and the de facto power, the United States, according to Mr Cronin. Mr Jin at Peking University added that despite intertwined economic interests, tension between the pair's regional strategy will remain. "It's desirable for the two countries to create the future together through dialogue and cooperation. But there will be also constant frictions. On the road, there will be also hegemony struggles. That's normal." sleethenational@gmail.com