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China gives cool response to US military activity in Australia

Chinese officials have reacted cooly to President Obama’s announcement Wednesday that US Marines will be based in northern Australia, closer to the disputed South China Sea than any other US land forces.

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China insists that its policy has remained unchanged – that the details of the disputes should be set aside, and all claimants should jointly exploit any economic resources. Neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines complain that Chinese naval vessels have been probing their waters in an increasingly aggressive manner.

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A ploy?

Analysts here see such complaints as a ploy. “They have to make the issue hot now and involve the US because in 10 years’ time they will have nothing to bargain with China,” suggests Jin Canrong, deputy head of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “China will be too strong. Time is on China’s side, not theirs.”

Washington is taking advantage of the disputes “to try to expand militarily in the western Pacific,” argues Professor Zhu, stepping up naval cooperation with Manila and Hanoi, selling arms to Indonesia, and basing marines in Australia.

“China’s nationalist sentiments are bad,” he adds, “but fueling such sentiments is worse and unfortunately that’s what America is doing.”

From Washington, the view is different. “The main thrust of US policy is really not anti-China,” says Ms. Glaser. “It is reassuring friends and allies in the region, to counter the narrative that the US is in decline.”

That does not convince the Chinese media, which has made much of South China Sea issues. Even the ruling Communist Party official mouthpiece, the Peoples’ Daily, claimed in its overseas edition last week that “everything shows that the United States will provoke the contradictions which exist between countries in this region for its own benefit.”

The subdued official response to recent US moves, however, suggests that the Chinese government may be taking a different view.

“The media here are nervous, but the Foreign Ministry people seem to feel more relaxed,” points out Professor Jin. “They tend to think that the Obama administration’s policy is not containment, but something between engagement and hedging [US bets]," he explains.

At any rate, there is little fear in Beijing of a “cold war” with the US, a phrase bandied around in Washington last week in discussion of the embryonic Air Sea Battle plan.

Though recent US diplomatic and military moves in the region are not friendly, “China will not take any counter-action, there will be no tit for tat,” predicts Zhu. “I don’t think Beijing would stupidly get into an escalation or into a military race: It’s totally unaffordable.

“But this will have a poisonous effect on economic cooperation between China and the US,” he worries. “At the moment, the two powers have their backs to each other on a lot of issues,” Zhu adds. The last week or so, he believes, “will sap China’s will to cooperate.” 

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