Asia's Shifting Geopolitical Landscape: The China-Japan-Vietnam-India Dynamic

Rising tensions between China and Vietnam over maritime border demarcations in the South China Sea are no surprise, as Beijing has become more assertive in its long-standing claims to the majority of the sea since 2010. The latest dispute began on May 2, when state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) placed a deep sea drilling rig in waters disputed with Vietnam. This has led to a maritime standoff between the two countries and a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam.

China Asserts Itself Amid US 'Weakness'…

We see a possibility that China is acting at this time to take advantage of the perceived weakness of the US, which is distracted by conflicts risks in Ukraine. Recent opinion polls show that the American public favours a less interventionist foreign policy. Given that the US has refrained from confronting Russia over Ukraine, a country with 45mn people, it is hard to see why Washington would militarily challenge Beijing over uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, especially since Vietnam is not covered by a defence treaty with the US.

For that matter, it is difficult to see the US risking war with China to defend Japan's Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu in China) in the East China Sea, which are claimed by Beijing, too. Although US President Barack Obama stated during a visit to Japan in late April that the islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty, any suggestions that Washington should fight against Beijing in a naval war over such tiny uninhabited islands would be a hard sell to the American public and politicians. The same applies to maritime disputes between China and the Philippines, which is also a US treaty ally.

…But Sets The Scene For A Backlash

Although China may perceive the US to be weak or quasi-isolationist at this time, its assertiveness is risky. In December 2012, Japanese voters elected arguably their most assertive prime minister in decades in the form of Shinzo Abe. Although economic policy was a major factor in Abe's return to office, he has been advocating a much more robust defence policy than virtually all of his predecessors, mainly due to concerns about China's rise.

At the same time, Beijing's assertiveness is prompting the Philippines and Vietnam to boost security ties with the US. At the end of April 2014, during Obama's visit to the Philippines, the two countries signed a new defence pact, which was prompted by Manila's concerns about Beijing's regional geopolitical ambitions.

Essentially, China's assertiveness in East and South East Asia is prompting more robust defence policies in Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and increasing their desire to cooperate with one another and the US in regional security matters – all of which Beijing opposes.

India Could Be A 'Game-Changer'

The biggest piece of the Asian geopolitical jigsaw puzzle is India. India has just concluded its general election and will announce the winner on May 16. This is almost certain to be Hindu nationalist BJP party leader Narendra Modi, who earlier this year spoke out against China's claim to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is in the Himalayas and borders Tibet. Assuming he becomes prime minister, Modi could increase India's geopolitical assertiveness vis-a-vis China. If this proves to be the case, he would find a close partner in Japan's Shinzo Abe, and possibly the Vietnamese leadership. India can also be expected to help guide Myanmar out of China's geopolitical orbit.