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Comment (June 21, 2006)

Comment on Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy's Article "Troubling Signs in East Asia"

Samantha Mahony (University of Southern California)

In his recent GLOCOM article entitled "Troubling Signs in East Asia", former U.S. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy discusses the implications of China's economic development in the context of East Asian stability and U.S. foreign policy. While Roy purveys a variety of provocative, potentially legitimate concerns, one fundamental weakness of Roy's arguments is that they are based on hypothetical speculations rather than in-depth research – he does not touch upon the major current events that have occurred between these economic superpowers.

Although it is an undeniable fact that China, the U.S., and Japan will face economic and political tensions in the times to come, to speculate that the outcome will be either grim conflict or prosperous cooperation is to make a simplistic generalization. Rather than briefly glancing at China's rise in power and labeling it a "troubling sign," it is instead necessary to examine two things that Roy addresses in further detail: U.S. reactions to China's recent developments and the Sino-Japanese nationalistic frictions.

U.S. Reactions to China's Rise

The Pentagon's recent annual report to Congress, which documents the remarkable pace and scope of China's consistent militaristic spending and expansion, is one factor underpinning Sino-U.S. tensions. The concern is that as Chinese economic and diplomatic interests expand, Chinese strategists may plan on increasing their naval presence along the Persian Gulf and East Asia to further secure their energy supply lines. Beijing may cease to rely on the U.S. Navy for the safety of its energy supplies and thus force the U.S. to compete for sea control for the first time since the Cold War. In addition, the U.S. has committed itself to deterring the Chinese from using force against Taiwan.

China has countered American suspicions documented in the Pentagon report, claiming that the U.S. is scare-mongering and that their militaristic expansion is but a move to safeguard its territory and national security.

It could be argued that the U.S. is pursuing a means of obliterating its naval competition in the East Asian seas in the guise of its ideological commitment to be the "equalizer" should China launch its invasion in Taiwan. This argument seems plausible considering the Pentagon's report that Chinese militaristic buildup is heavily aimed at Taiwan (and therefore poses no current direct threat to U.S. strongholds in the western Pacific). At this point, then, it seems that whatever militaristic threats China presents to the U.S. are hypothetical and unpredictable. The more pressing issue, however, is how stability in East Asia will be offset should China launch its militaristic operations on Taiwan.

One issue of concern is the Bush administration's pending controls to be placed on technological exports to China in response to U.S. concerns over China's military buildup. Although the list of banned items is very narrow, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, U.S. companies have complained that such restrictions would exacerbate the gaping trade deficit between the U.S. and China. However, the Commerce Department's undersecretary of industry and security David H. McCormick conveys a dissenting opinion, claiming that export controls are not the driving force behind the trade deficit.

Given the unpredictability of China's militaristic movements and diplomatic intentions, it seems that a reevaluation of U.S. plans to impose economic sanctions on China is in order. It would be in the Bush administration's best interest to reexamine the economic impact of enacting such trade restrictions and consider whether the costs of doing so outweigh its potential benefits.

Sino-Japanese Tensions

Aside from the Taiwan issue, a central factor underlying tensions between China and Japan lies in their dispute over undersea gas reserves in the East China Sea. China claims that it has exclusive rights to the reserves while Japan says the two countries should share the reserves. China does not recognize the boundary claimed by Japan, which splits the area of the lucrative energy reserves in half; meanwhile, as China continues to drill unilaterally in the area, Japan is concerned that China's developing fields will stretch into its own sector.

Growing nationalistic tensions brought about by conservative elites and abundant misunderstandings accompany the economic disputes. One conspicuous sign of such tensions, which are exacerbated by historical bitterness, is the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's insistence on visiting the war memorial Yasukuni Shrine, an event that has enraged the Chinese, who view it as a sign that the Japanese do not repent the atrocities committed during the war. In addition, succeeding generations of Chinese children are continuously reminded of the humiliation and past sufferings brought upon them by the Japanese and are taught about Japanese aggression in school.

Optimists believe that the growing economic interdependence between China and Japan will eventually quell the Sino-Japanese nationalist tensions, for Japan is not only China's largest trading partner but is also a significant source of foreign investment. However, this interdependent relationship alone will not likely, in itself, obliterate the deeply-rooted animosity and political will espoused by both sides. As it is difficult to predict what will become of this volatile situation, we can only hope that stability will remain intact despite this ongoing bitterness.


Arkin, William M. "Early Warning." Washington Post. 24 May 2006.

Blumenthal, Dan. "Get Serious about China's Rising Military." American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. 25 May 2006.

Jakobson, Linda. "The Implications of China’s Rise for Asia and Europe." (PDF). Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 2 May 2006.

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