By Bhaskar Roy
As China’s comprehensive power began to grow beyond Asia to a global power status, its international posture became increasingly demanding, aggressive and even threatening towards its neighbours. It became markedly so from 2008 when it hosted the summer Olympic games in all its glory winning medals far more than in the past, dwarfing all other nations except the USA. There were some fabrications which became evident as the games proceeded and post-games analyses revealed. The world let it pass. China’s economy was looked at as a stabilizing force when the global economy starting from the US began a meltdown. The virus quickly spread to Europe.
The Shanghai trade Expo in 2010 was another success, demonstrating economic power to the world. It has pipped Japan to the Nos. 2 position in economic power in terms of GDP, and projections say that China will overtake the USA in a matter of years.
Militarily, if Russia’s lethal strategic strike capability is set aside, China is the second most powerful military power in the world after the USA. Certainly, the military gap between China and the US is very wide and will continue to be so for some more decades. China is aware of this. The recent Chinese foreign policy track is very clear that they do not want to confront the USA, and have refused to be overly provoked by America’s Asia ‘pivot’ or “rebalance”.
For China’s Asian neighbours, especially the South East Asian nations, Beijing’s military and economic power are overwhelming. They are also not sure how far they can depend on the US in a military confrontation with China. The ASEAN countries are also not united. China’s military strategy vis-a-vis the US is to make it unacceptably costly for the US if it intervenes in China’s move to consolidate its territorial claims in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, as well as in the Taiwan issue.
Most, troubling is the trajectory of China’s rise accompanied by its actions which are making its neighbours increasingly uncomfortable Leading the aggressive decibel in China are senior retired PLA officers who are in research posts in institutions linked to the military, some experts linked to security think tanks and hard-line official media like the Global Times.
At the recently held World Peace Forum in Beijing (July 708), Chinese participants demanded a review of policies regarding territorial disputes and more assertive actions in the disputed areas. Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Luo Yuan, Vice President of the China Strategy Cultural Promotion Association, made a significant observation at the forum, which was also attended by some foreign dignitaries. He said “The situation in South China Sea does not look optimistic. While China’s neighbours are under public pressure (to consolidate their territorial claims), the Chinese military is faced with the same pressure “. Luo went on to add “China’s patience has been tested to the limits, and there is no room for further tolerance”.
Luo Yuan is among a handful of retired military officers known for their hawkish views. Conceding that people are being gradually allowed to air some of their personal views, the latitude given to these hawks and sections of the official media to literally threaten neighbours over territorial issues, is something to note. This is precisely because of the fact that the PLA actions on the ground often match these words. Nobody has failed to notice the establishment of Sansha as a prefectural-level city to administer the Spratley, Paracel and Macclesfield Bank islands in the South China Sea. A prison is also being constructed on Sansha to accommodate fisherman of the neighbouring countries if caught poaching in Chinese claimed waters.
In a follow up move, a reshuffle of PLA officers in the Hainan island province which overlooks the South China Sea was announced on July 11. New officers were announced as Hainan’s PLA Political Commissar, the province’s deputy army commander, and head of the political department of the province. Vice Admiral Wang Dengping, Political Commissar of the North Sea Fleet, was also brought to the region to oversee the fleet that covers the South China Sea.
According to media reports closely monitoring these developments, Lt. Gen. Xu Fenlin, Commander of the Guanghuo Military Command which oversees Hainan, recently stated that the “provincial military region should make solid preparations for military conflicts to fulfil the missions bestowed upon it by the Party and the people”.
Hainan Communist Party Chief Luo Baoming also said that the province faced unprecedented responsibility and pressure in defending China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea. Around 50 Chinese maritime security vessels have been despatched in the South China Sea to protect China’s claims. According to Taiwanese media reports quoting reliable sources, China has set up a new missile brigade in Guangdoud Shaoguan city. This new 827 missile brigade is reported equipped with the DF-21D anti-ship missile (range over 2000 kms) and the DF-16 that has a range of around 1600 kms, Beijing is surrounding the region with ‘awe’ .
The rising tensions between China, and Vietnam and the Philippines on the territorial issues relating to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea is a global concern. Beijing perceives that the US, with upgraded military relation with the Philippines and Vietnam, is creating a chain to contain China. The Philippines has an existing military agreement with the USA.
On the other hand, frictions between China over the sovereignty of the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) has escalated. Japan has also decided to stand its ground, refusing to concede to China any more on territorial issues. It also views that the stability of South China Sea is directly connected to its own security interests as its ships traverse these waters.
China has been practising mind control of its people from the very beginning of the communist regime. The intention was to create extreme nationalism as a composite nation to think only in one direction. This has not always worked well. Mao Zedong’s Great People’s Cultural Revolution was a disaster.
Intensive nationalism is a part of the scientific development of Mao’s ‘People’s War’ doctrine. This has been used severally in the past including against the US following the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Yugoslav war, and the US spy plane incident of 2001.
How many fronts will China open? This is the perplexing question. In China’s claim over the last few year, the Sino-Indian border has been stable and bilateral relations have been improving. The Indian government stated position has been the same. The fact is that there has been no exchange of fire between the troops of the two countries across the border. The truth, however, is that the border or issues relating to the border and territory has not been so tranquil. The basic premise of China that the length of the India-China border is approximately 2000 kms is not only wrong but a perfidy. The border is approximately 4,100 kms and includes the Sikkim border and that of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). China, unfortunately, has no honest principle on such issues. This also involves non-issue of visas to those Indian who live in Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing also attacked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang.
Unfortunately, India has given too much space to China in the interest of developing bilateral relations. Border incursions have been explained away by New Delhi as a consequence of clear delineation of Line of Actual Control (LAC). But more than that has been happening, including Chinese eating into Indian territory such as the Dipsung Bulge in the Western sector. Chinese military infrastructure construction in Tibet and along the Tibet-India border is another concern. But India can, and should with no loss of time, reciprocate on its own side.
China has always depicted India as an expansionist nation and a threat to its neighbours through that very effective propaganda. India has no propaganda or psychological warfare machinery. This is not only penitent to China but in other international issues. This is a serious weakness.
Very recently, China has stepped up warnings to India to behave and fall in line with its position and policies. It is not only using its own media machinery but also media abroad controlled by Beijing. One example is an article in the Singapore based Lianhe Zaobao (July 03) titled “China should develop a strategy for the Himalayas”. The article by Professor Qiao Xinsheng, apart from other things indicated China can create problems for India in the Himalayan countries if India creates problem for China in South China Sea and South East Asia. These articles were clear that if India joins the US in encircling and containing China, a 1962 kind of punitive action cannot be ruled out.
At the recently concluded ASEAN foreign ministers conference and the following ARF security meeting in Cambodia, China succeeded in scuttling an ASEAN consensus on the Spratly island/South China issue. India Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna made India’s position very clear – that the disputes be resolved peacefully and through dialogue, and on internal laws. The Foreign Minister explained India need for energy and commercial interest, not in politics.
In June, China declared its ownership of almost all the waters of the South China Sea, and offering oil and gas survey in all areas to foreign collaboration apparently in response to Vietnam’s declaration of its own ownership. China’s forceful claim on the Scarborough Shoal under the control of the Philippines, has further muddied the waters. Scarborough Shoal is 130 miles from the Philippines shores, well within its 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Sabres are rattling, guns are being cleaned, and powder kept dry.
Although China is a signatory to UN Commission on Law of Sea (UNCLOS), it does not accept its rules in South China and East China seas. China’s claims on these territories on historical records are simply bogus. Ships of other countries have plied these waters long before Chinese ships did. Prof. Wang Guangwu of Singapore University studied this issue from the 1950s and his studies debunk Chinese claims.
Beijing knows where it actually stands. But the lure of 213 billion barrels of oil in South China Sea, and formation of maritime defence with the second chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean to counter the USA, are prime factors for China’s over arched security concerns.
Unfortunately, China’s ambitions go much further to dominate Asia. A very clear look at the China-US relations is demanded. In GDP terms, China is only next to the USA and may take over USA soon. In global economic terms, China is still a platform to recreate global economic balance, though there are both positive and pessimistic assessment of China’s economy. In military terms, it may be far behind the US, but in Asian terms Beijing is yet to have a close competitor. That is not to say China is invulnerable. But it still holds the prime position. These and other reasons made US President Barack Obama to pronounce the G-2 concept, or the US-China leadership. China rejected this proposal as it did not want to take global responsibilities that come from such a status. But the sense of Obama’s views is being well utilized by China.
This returns us to China’s use of power. How far will it go in using its military might in the South China Sea issue and the conflict with Japan to establish actual sovereignty over its claims? Will it hit India militarily if New Delhi does not toe its line? China is adept in twisting facts and history to claim territory. Beyond a point they are bound to be challenged. Even if Beijing launches a limited war under informatization conditions, something for which they have been preparing, the region will suffer a serious reverse.
(The writer can be reached at e-mail: [email protected])