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What Is Causing South Sea Stand Offs – Analysis

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By Bhaskar Roy

Most of April saw the South China Sea dispute over sections of the Spratly Islands between China and the Philippines escalate to an unprecedented level.

The Spratly group which consists over 550 reefs, shoals, islets and submerged rocks, holding one of the biggest gas and oil reserves in the world are claimed by five coastal countries of the sea.

China claims the sea and the islands in their entirety, while the others claim only parts. It is assessed by the Chinese that the hydrocarbon reserves there could fuel China’s need for 60 years.

South China Sea
South China Sea

Here is the most apparent reason. An energy hungry country, China’s oil and gas imports are expanding at a fast pace to support the country’s economic development. Currently, China imports more than 60 percent of its energy requirement, mostly from the Gulf, Iran and some African countries. The other concerned countries have similar needs, too.

The South China Sea has critical strategic importance. It is the busiest commercial sea lane in the region. As the centre of global economic activity, closure of sea lane can bring the economy of Asia to its knees and will affect Europe and the US as well. Therefore, China’s claim of sovereignty of the South China Sea assumes great concern.

In July 2010 ASEAN conference in Hanoi, Chinese officials had suggested to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US accept the South China Sea as China’s “core interest”. This meant China could legitimately use military power to exercise its sovereignty of the entire sea, and control navigation. Clinton rejected it saying the neutrality of the sea was in the USA’s national interest.

Sovereignty over South China Sea is intrinsically linked with island sea strategy to dominate the Asia Pacific region (APR). China also claims the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands, and have clashed with Japanese vessels in the area. These islands in the East China sea are held by Japan. Sovereignty of the Diaoyu island will allow control of the entire maritime arc on China’s eastern sea board and extend it eventually to the second islands chain. This, of course, includes Taiwan, though this issue is far more complicated.

Last year a Chinese fishing vessel rammed a Vietnamese survey ship destroying survey cables. The recent China-Philippine stand off took place when a Philippine patrol aircraft spotted Chinese fishing vessels in the lagoon in the Scarborough shoal on April 8. Philippine ships were sent to interdict the Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the waters of the Philippine but Chinese maritime vessels sailed in to intervene. After a protracted stand off both sides withdrew.

The Scarborough shoal is claimed by the Philippines. It has constructed a light house on it. But the Chinese claim the shoal also although it is within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

The matter was further aggravated by a Mid-April US-Philippine military exercise which included taking back an island occupied by an enemy force. The US and the Philippines have a military agreement, and both sides are talking about enhancing this alliance further to chalk out clear conditions as to when the US can intervene militarily in Manila’s favour.

China is equally concerned with the new and growing military relations between the US and Vietnam, old enemies, who seem to be joining hands to counter China. The very recent naval exercise between the two has seriously disturbed Beijing. Vietnam and China have large territorial disputes which not only involve the Spratly islands, but also the Paracel islands occupied by China when the US was withdrawing from Vietnam. The US could have prevented this but strategic interest were different then.

China reacted strongly against the US-Philippine military exercise with the authoritative Chinese military newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily (LAD) warning (April 21) that the exercise had fanned risks of armed confrontation over the disputed South China Sea. The official Global times and the People’s Daily (April 26) warned that it would be wrong to think that China will not fight (militarily) back before the 18th Party Congress in October this year. The official English language China Daily (April 26) also retained military option, but Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai would explain China’s position to the US in their Strategic and Economic Dialogue on May 3-4 in Beijing. Major General Luo Yuan, a known hardliner, put forth (April 27) squarely that China will not hesitate to take military action if the Philippines used military means, to prohibit its rights. His statement (China.org.cn) may not be Beijing’s view, but it reflects a military thinking.

A point to note here is that the aggressive position is led by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) followed by the political media, but the foreign ministry is trying to deescalate the situation. Recent reports suggest that the PLA’s voice reigns way above that of the foreign ministry where territorial and strategic issues are concerned. Western Chinese military expert like Richard D. Fisher have pointed out that North Korea’s display (April 15) of its “KN-08” ballistic missile was mounted on a 16-wheel Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) was a Chinese origin. It was identified as a product of the 9th Academy of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), or the Sanjiang space Wanshan Special Vehicle corporation.

A recent report of the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) on China’s proliferation pointed out circumstantial evidence of China’s military proliferation to North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.

The recent political incident concerning Bo Xilai, politburo member and secretary of Chongqing municipality reveals everything is not so smooth in China. While Bo and his wife Guo Kailai are under arrest and being investigated for not only corruption and murder, but also for planning an overthrow of the top leadership. Bo’s influence permeated even the army which the authorities are trying to control.

Bo has been removed from all his posts, but it took time indicating the kind of support he enjoyed in important places. So, was there only one Bo Xilai in the country? Or are there lesser Bos?

An investigative article by John Garnaut in the Foreign Policy Magazine (April 12) have revealed shocking accounts of corruption, nefarious nexus, and machinations with politicians in the higher levels of the army. Therefore, it is quite possible that high levels in the PLA may have bulldozed the political hierarchy in proliferation. Arms deals are lucrative and kick-backs are substantial. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons that the political leadership headed by Hu Jintao is compelled to support the North Korean regime and forgive them for all their transgression and threatening the neighbours.

After Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, no political leader came up with that kind of stature to control the PLA. Jiang Zemin basically bought over PLA leaders with promotions and largesse though, towards the end of his tenure he gained some control. But by retaining the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for two years after his retirement from political positions, he weakened his successor Hu Jintao.

The hawks in China, especially in the military and strategic groups, have discarded Deng Xiaoping dictum of “hide your strength, and bide your time”. The emphasis is that China is now strong enough both economically and militarily to challenge the regional and global narratives. While weaker than the US, its thrust is to deny the US area access to the region.

They see the US as the main spoiler in China’s rightful domination of the region. The new US ‘pivot’ in Asia enunciated by President Barack Obama in January this year, has disturbed Beijing’s military strategic perspective. It may be noted that late last year the PLA formed a new Strategic Planning Department (SPD) which will interact with civilian ministries for policy formulations. This is a dangerous development.

The military backed approach on the South China Sea territorial disputes and that with Japan, can cost China dearly. This has already driven the US, Japan and Australia to review their assessment of China threat. China is already pushing the ASEAN to consider multilateral approach on territorial issues with China.

Unfortunately, China has brought these challenges on itself. It is not so easy to change the existing order with guns. We will have see how the upcoming leadership of Party Chief Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keshang wrest back the Party’s real supremacy. The PLA navy has stepped up its patrolling in the South China Sea. It is to publish a new map of the sea to further buttress its sovereignty claim since its present map with nine dotted lines was found untenable from China’s own experts region and the Chinese military may very well opt for short but debilitating strike against the Philippines. Having studied the Falkland war, Israel’s air strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility, and the first attack on Iraq, Chinese military strategists have reportedly concluded that a short and conclusive war can avoid international intervention.

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SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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