Beijing adopts aggressive stance as hawks gain sway in South China Sea dispute

Posted on July 27, 2012


In this photo taken on Friday, July 20, 2012, Chinese fishing boats sail in the lagoon of Meiji reef off the island province of Hainan in the South China Sea.

China has adopted a more aggressive stance in recent weeks on territorial disputes in the South China Sea as hard-line officials and commentators call on Beijing to take a tougher line with rival claimants.

China’s supreme policymaking body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is made up entirely of civilians, but outspoken People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers, intelligence advisers and maritime agency chiefs are arguing that Beijing should be more forceful in asserting its sovereignty over the sea and the oil and natural gas believed to lie under the sea bed.

Most of them blame the United States’ so-called strategic “pivot” to Asia for emboldening neighboring countries, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, to challenge China’s claims.

“China now faces a whole pack of aggressive neighbors headed by Vietnam and the Philippines and also a set of menacing challengers headed by the United States, forming their encirclement from outside the region,” wrote Xu Zhirong, a deputy chief captain with China Marine Surveillance, in the June edition of China Eye, a publication of the Hong Kong-based China Energy Fund Committee.

Analysis: Firepower bristles in South China Sea

“And, such a band of eager lackeys is exactly what the U.S. needs for its strategic return to Asia,” he wrote.

Eager to avoid military conflict?
Most Chinese and foreign security policy analysts believe China wants to avoid military conflict across sea lanes that carry an annual $5 trillion in ship-borne trade, particularly if it raises the prospect of U.S. intervention.

However, they say Beijing is increasingly determined to block any unified effort from rival claimants to negotiate over disputes, preferring instead to isolate much smaller and weaker states in direct talks.

There was evidence of this harder line at an annual foreign ministers’ meeting of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations bloc earlier this month where diplomats said China’s influence behind the scenes led to an unprecedented breakdown in the grouping’s traditional preference for maintaining an appearance of harmony and unity.

The meeting in Phnom Penh ended in disarray without progress on a proposed code of conduct that was aimed at minimizing the risk of conflict in the South China Sea or issuing a concluding communique.

China’s close ally Cambodia, the meeting’s host, blocked every attempt to include tensions in the South China Sea on the agenda, said the diplomats from other member nations.

China wary as US, Philippines stage war games

On the military front, China’s powerful Central Military Commission has approved the formal establishment of a military garrison for the South China Sea.

The move, announced this week , is essentially a further assertion of China’s sovereignty claims after it last month raised the administrative status of the seas to the level of a city, which it calls Sansha.

The official Xinhua news agency said the Sansha garrison would be responsible for “national defense mobilization … guarding the city and supporting local emergency rescue and disaster relief” and “carrying out military missions.”

The city government is located on the less than one-square mile Yongxing Island, according to Xinhua, which contains a small military airport, a sea port, roads, a clinic, a post office and an observatory. This is in the Paracels, a group of islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

A ship calls twice in a month from nearby Hainan province to serve its 613 residents.

Xu, a regular commentator on maritime security issues, is one of many analysts arguing that recent tensions are a direct result of the Obama administration’s announcement late last year of a strategic shift that would eventually see 60 percent of the U.S. Navy’s warships deployed to the Asia Pacific, up from the current 50 percent.

US, Philippines downplay China fears while staging war games

The U.S. move is widely seen as a response to China’s growing military power and increasingly assertive behavior in dealing with contested territory.

China’s recent disputes with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and Vietnam over oil exploration rights have heightened regional fears that tension in the South China Sea could lead to armed conflict.

One of China’s most hawkish army officers, Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, an influential teacher and strategy researcher at Beijing’s National Defense University, has dismissed the entitlement of these rivals to the disputed waters.

Philippines refuses to budge on South China Sea dispute

In a speech to the World Peace Forum in Beijing earlier this month, Zhu said it was “unreasonable and illegal” for the Philippines and Vietnam to claim territory that historically belonged to China.

He said there had been no disputes in the South China Sea before the 1970s when maps published by rival claimants also acknowledged it was Chinese territory.

“Relevant countries did not begin to lay claim to islands and sea waters in the area until the discovery of large amounts of oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea,” he said, according to an extract of his speech published in the official Global Times newspaper last week.

Zhu also blamed U.S. “meddling” for prolonging the current tension.

The retired general is best known for his assertion in 2005 that China should use nuclear weapons against the United States if American forces intervened in a conflict over Taiwan.

He escaped any serious censure over what he stressed at the time were his personal views and has since become a regular member of high-level Chinese military delegations in security talks with U.S. counterparts.

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Other officials calling for a tougher line include Cui Liru, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing think-tank closely linked to China’s intelligence services, and Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, a retired army officer who is well known for his hard-line views and provocative media commentaries.

It is unclear how much sway these blunt-speaking officials exercise over foreign and military policies or whether their views reflect official thinking.

But for the PLA, the persistent territorial disputes undermine a carefully-honed image as a force that will never allow foreign powers to encroach on Chinese territory as they did in the colonial period.

“The South China Sea situation is certainly highly frustrating for Chinese military officers,” said Sun Yun, a Washington-based China security policy expert and a former analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beijing.

“If the PLA cannot even defend China’s own territory at its doorstep, what capacity or legitimacy does it have to cruise around the world?”

Some top Chinese policymakers say neighboring countries should accept that an increasingly powerful China would seek to re-shape relationships that had been established earlier when it was weak.

Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor and now a consultant, said when he was on a visit to Beijing earlier this month a senior Chinese official had told him that China’s views should be given more weight now that it had become stronger.

In a talk to the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington last week, Hadley said he could see some merit to this view but he added it could be a “destructive” way of framing issues.

“This new China is going to be hard to manage,” he said.

Bellicose statements
However, notwithstanding the recent assertiveness and the bellicose statements of military and security officials, some analysts note that policy-making in China is not entirely in the hands of hawks.

“Given that all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee are civilians, their perceptions of the South China Sea issue are clearly more comprehensive than the generals,” said Sun, the Washington-based expert.

However, others warn against making distinctions between the views of China’s military brass, civilian leaders and diplomats.

Dean Cheng, a China security expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said Beijing was hardening its stance in the South China Sea and also in other maritime areas where it had disputes with Japan and South Korea.

“We have a broad set of hardliners, not just in uniform, but across the board,” he said.


Australia Urged to Defuse South China Sea Tensions

SYDNEY — Australia has been urged to do more to help ease tensions in the South China Sea.   China and Vietnam disagree about territorial claims, while other countries, including the United States and the Philippines, have also been drawn into the long-running dispute.

Various nations have argued about territorial rights in the South China Sea for hundreds of years.  However, a recent upsurge in tension has raised concern that armed conflict could strike the volatile region.

China bases its claim on a large part of the South China Sea on 2,000 years of history, which it claims gives Beijing a compelling argument for controlling vast swathes of water.  Chinese officials argue that the Paracel and Spratly island chains were once important parts of the Chinese nation and could have rich reserves of fossil fuels.

However, Vietnam and the Philippines strongly refute China’s claim.

A Sydney-based think tank, the Lowy Institute, argues that recent tensions increase the chances of violence in the region.

Lowy Executive Director Michael Wesley says the disputes could have global implications.

“The first level is a set of territorial disputes between China and several Southeast Asian countries,” he said. “The second level is a dispute between China and the United States over the conditions under which ships pass through this waterway, which conveys about a third of all global shipping.  And, I feel that there is a real chance that conflict could break out because of inexperienced maritime forces, with little or no mutual understandings of how to manage maritime incidents.”

Wesley is calling on Australia, which has strong military ties to the United States and an entrenched economic relationship with China, to do more to broker a deal in the South China Sea.

“Look, Australia really needs to be more concerned about this issue,” he said.  “About 54 percent of Australia’s trade passes through the South China Sea, and really what is at stake for Australia here is the outcome of the standoff between China and the United States could have a real effect on the strategic balance of the Pacific Ocean.  So we have really big interests in this.”

Wesley says that maritime tensions pit communist China and Vietnam against one another, unite usual enemies China and Taiwan, and draw the United States back into partnership with Vietnam.

The regional political bloc ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is continuing to explore new ideas to resolve the dispute.


Stakes are high in the South China Sea

A Chinese ship anchored on Chinese-controlled Subi Reef, 15 nautical miles northwest of the Philippine-controlled Pagasa islands. AFP

PHILIPPINES President Benigno Aquino III has been creating waves not just within his country but without as well. While the waves within — if they do not prove so overly disruptive as to be counter-productive —  may be necessary, overdue and largely welcome by Filipinos, those without are a totally different matter.

For many weeks now, Manila has been caught in a debilitating stand-off with China over uninhabited rocky islets in the South China Sea. The Philippines is not alone in such disputes with China. Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam share similar disputes with China or each other.

In the case with Brunei, we have come to an understanding after rather protracted bilateral talks that allowed for what appears to be a win-win setting aside of overlapping claims in favour of joint exploration of whatever resources may lie undersea, believed to be mostly hydrocarbons.

Beijing is known to favour settling its maritime disputes with the Asean states in a similar, bilateral fashion. While individual Asean states may be understandably wary of entering bilateral talks with the budding Asian superpower over the disputes, there has been no Asean consensus so far about taking up the disputes with Beijing as a united grouping.

This much is clear from the almost deafening silence of the Philippines’ Asean neighbours in its current stand-off with China, despite the Filipinos’ plea for Asean nations to take a stand. There may in fact be some understandable resentment on the part of some Asean states over the Philippines choosing to confront Beijing at this stage before Asean arrives at a collective stance.

The Philippines may want to portray itself as the plucky little guy standing up to the regional bully. This stance may resonate well domestically but smacks of dangerous brinksmanship.

As things stand, the idea of Beijing as bully may be more threat than reality.

While regional states obviously need to be wary not just of Beijing’s intentions and designs but those of all big powers towards the region, it is to no one’s benefit to provoke Beijing into making its intentions clear.

Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea may be questionable, but the very act of staking them does not in and of itself make Beijing out to be a bully. It will be noted, after all, that Taiwan, otherwise still officially the Republic of China, makes the same claims as China. There is at least equal if not greater evidence of China as generous benefactor to weaker states than otherwise.

However, China’s growing global heft definitely marks it out to be a potential bully and it must concern Beijing that regional states are prone to be mistrustful of its intentions and designs.

That said, the Philippines’ stance does seem needlessly disruptive.

Aquino recently returned from a trip to Washington having secured fresh   commitments of American support — crucially, in shoring up the Philippines’ military — as well as a joint reaffirmation of navigational safety in the South China Sea.

That reiteration of safe passage through the sea may be viewed in Beijing as superfluous and therefore a further provocation. China, after all, has built itself up as a rising economic power and is only now beefing up its own military and defence capabilities.

No country, least of all the US (at least officially), begrudges Beijing a military commensurate with its growing status and, therefore, its added responsibilities, particularly to its own people and burgeoning global interests.

Moreover, China has developed to become the largest trading nation on earth and if any nation has the greater interest in ensuring safe passage through all seas, it clearly is China.

What will be a threat to all nations with peaceful intentions is the unintended escalation of disputes to such an extent that any accidental miscalculation on the part of any party leads to armed conflict.

China and the Philippines have, to both their credit, pulled back from the brink. But the stand-off remains and the potential for grave miscalculation or an untoward accidents remains real.

China is famously known to be playing very long-term games. It seems to have time on its side. If current projections hold, it will eclipse the US as the world’s largest economy in the not-too-distant future. What that does to either of the two big powers is anybody’s guess.

The wisest course for all regional states would appear to be to postpone for as long as possible any likelihood of any of them having to choose between either of the two.

John Teo

Posted in: Economy, Politics