By Bhaskar Roy
Following the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November, the CCP’s Hong Kong based mouthpiece, the Wen Weipo wrote that China’s efforts to protect its maritime rights will continue to increase.
In the party work report presented by outgoing CCP General Secretary, Hu Jintao, no words were minced that the emphasis was high on building military strength to retrieve what it claimed as Chinese territory, especially maritime territory. These territories included the Spratly group of islands, reefs and corals in the South China Sea, the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, and, of course, Taiwan. Hong Kong has been the traditional window for China from Mao Zedong’s time. Using a Hong Kong mouth piece was to give a warning to the countries with which China has maritime territorial disputes.
There is a serious conflict between China and South Korea on maritime territory which is hardly reported in the media. Although Seoul is an American ally, it wants to maintain a stable relationship with China for economic reasons as well as regional stability. It is acutely aware of the threat it faces from North Korea, an ally of China and which has been bailed out by Beijing in each and every act of transgression against the South. But it is not in South Korea’s interest to react publicly against China.
It is well known that energy security is China’s first priority. The South China Sea is assessed to hold over 23 billion barrels oil. Gas has already been explored by China. The Chinese claims, if they fructify, can put the Asia Pacific Region (APR) under China’s control.
An aspect not discussed widely is the settlement of the country’s burgeoning population. Even Tibet and Xinjiang may not be able to contain the push as Beijing tends to ease its “one-child” policy to balance ageing population. There are some researches to suggest that China is acquiring long term mining contracts in African countries where Chinese workers can eventually settle down. The proverbial China towns.
Population migration is a process since Man began his journey. But in today’s age if such migration is a state policy, there is the fear of Trojan Horses being injected and much more. Human and raw material interests overseas need to be protected. This would require a strong navy, airborne forces and friendly countries to stage any operation. Therefore, the emphasis on the PLA Navy (PLAN). These are, however, some years away.
Two actions taken by the Chinese authorities post the Party Congress raises serious questions on what strategy China is embarking upon. One was stamping of Chinese map on passports that show India’s Arunachal Pradesh and disputed Aksai Chin as Chinese territories; including South China Sea with the nine dashed lines to claim Chinese sovereignty; including Taiwan as China’s territory, which is not unusual; a major omission in this map was non-inclusion of the Diaoyu/Senkaku island.
The other was the law enacted by China’s Hainan province in November which empowers the police of this island province to board and control foreign ships which enter the province’s waters without permission. The law will come into effect from January 01, 2013, and the full ambit of the law is yet to be declared. Hainan province, which is located at the eastern mouth of the South China Sea, is responsible for protecting and administrating China’s claims in this huge water body.
The South China Sea is the shortest route between the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and one of the busiest international shipping lanes. Oil and gas imports for countries like Japan also traverse this sea. India has an equally important interest in the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea.
A striking omission from the passport maps is that of Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyu (in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea. China may have a better case on the ownership of Diaoyu island than on the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea. Over the last two years China-Japan relations erupted into several face offs over the ownership of these islands, leading to anti-Japan riots in China, and hardening of position in Japan. There was economic casualty on both sides. China continues to send ships to the Diaoyu island waters, where clashes took place earlier.
The atmosphere in the East China Sea was so palpable over the last few months that a China-Japan naval clash became almost inevitable. So, what made China exclude the Diaoyu islands from the new territorial map?
The Chinese authorities have been acutely concerned over the USA’s Asia ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’. Initially, US President Barack Obama’s Asia rebalance declaration was not taken too seriously in Beijing. The USA had withdrawn from Iraq without any evidence it had won a victory. It was in the process of pulling out of Afghanistan without achieving their stated goal. Economic down turn had weakened the USA, forcing it to announce medium term cut in defense budget. On the other hand, China had surmounted the global economic meltdown, defense development had made the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) more confident and assertive, and a (misplaced) view that the global centre of gravity had shifted from Washington to Beijing, that is, the “Beijing consensus”. That does not hold any longer.
Obama’s Asian rebalance is not necessarily to beat down China. Far from it, China’s contribution to global economic recovery has been acknowledged. Obama made it amply clear that the US shift to the Asia Pacific Region was economic centric, to create jobs for Americans. The gradual military shift was to ensure that the region remained stable, conducive to economic development in which all have a share. When a large and powerful country like China decides to walk all over its neighbours, things, unfortunately, change.
It is possible that China took on Japan so stridently since the once in ten years leadership change was in process. Nationalism has been contrived by the Chinese Communist Party in such a manner, that the authorities are forced to bend to the public demand.
In testing the strength and resilience of the US pivot, Beijing may have made a mistake in taking on Japan, America’s strongest ally in the region and one of the critical strategic anchors across the world.
Instead of making international headlines, the US State Department sent a delegation led by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Japan and China end of November. Armitage dispelled the Chinese perception that the US was neutral. He made it abundantly clear that America was not neutral when its “ally was a victim of coercion or aggression or intimidation”. The message, apparently, went home. That, however, does not mean that China will stop sending its fishing vessels, coast guard ships and naval craft to the Diaoyu waters.
The South China Sea issue and the manner in which China is handling it not only affects the other claimants, but the international community as a whole. If it is taken over by China then the seamless International shipping lanes will be choked. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans are free, and so is the Indian Ocean. This will throw ocean based trade in disarray and seriously hurt trade and economic development in the region. China’s assurances that even if they control the South China Sea normal maritime traffic will not be affected cannot be relied upon. The world has seen many Chinese promises to despair at the end. When China bought the Ukraine aircraft carrier they said it would be an entertainment platform. Now “Voryag” is ‘Liaoning’, a full fledged aircraft carrier.
Why has the Hainan provincial law been enacted to control the South China Sea water? And why the full ambit of the law is yet to be declared? It may be recalled that a Chinese official had proposed in 2010 to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US recognize the South China Sea as its “core” interest. The US declined and made it public, angering the Chinese leadership. Officially, India has kept away from any statements on the Hainan law. New Delhi has critical interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But it would be premature to give an official opinion till the Chinese clarify their intentions. The US has asked China to clarify its position before taking any action.
The comments of the Indian Naval Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi to a journalist’s question cannot be taken an exception to. The question put a possible scenario and what the navy would do. Of course, if India’s national interests were threatened it would be the solemn responsibility of the Indian navy to act if it was a naval subject.
Only the timing was sensitive. National Security Advisor Mr. Shivshankar Menon was in Beijing at that time to meet his interlocutor Dai Bingguo on the border negotiations, as Dai is retiring and will be replaced by another Chinese official. A smooth transition is essential.
Although Admiral Joshi’s comments did not have any disturbing effect, China took the opportunity to reiterate their claims. But Beijing, with such positions may be pushing the envelope too far. They may have been apparently encouraged by keeping the ASEAN split on the Spratly islands’ ownership. There has been a thrust over some years now to press India to keep a distance from the USA especially if there is anything do with China. China has been projecting repeatedly that India is collaborating with the USA and Japan to counter China. This reflects a nervous and fragile Chinese foreign policy. China wants to play a dominant role and become the strong China that it was 170 years ago, before the two opium wars.
This makes for an unexpected outcome. China’s opaqueness is a challenge. To build trust China has to be transparent.
(The author is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected])