By R. S. Kalha
In probably what was symptomatic of the deep divisions that exist within the Chinese leadership, the well known Chinese daily ‘Global Times’, which represents the views of the Chinese Communist Party, published two articles on the same day with very different views on what China should do about the problems it faces in the South China Sea. It is indeed very rare that disagreements within the Chinese leadership are aired publicly and that too on the same day. Who were the protagonists, what were their views and how does the Chinese Politburo line up on this issue is a moot point.
On September 29, 2011 the ‘Global Times’ carried an article entitled, ‘Time to teach those around the South China Sea a lesson’ authored by Long Tao, a strategic analyst with the China Energy Fund Committee. As is the Chinese Communist style and custom, Long Tao is probably a pseudonym for an important member of the Chinese hierarchy who wishes to remain anonymous. As is evident from the title of the article the warnings conveyed are explicit, with Vietnam and the Philippines marked out as the main villains. According to the author, trouble began in this area only after North and South Vietnam had been re-united and he reminds Vietnam of the ‘punishment’ it had received in 1979! The remedy, the author suggests, is to ‘think ahead and strike first’ before things get ‘out of hand’, and not waste ‘the opportunity to launch tiny scale battles’. He also points out that there are over 1000 oil and gas wells, four airfields and numerous other facilities – none of them Chinese—that can be ‘burned down to the ground’. The article also commends Russia’s ‘action’ in the Caucasus of effectively severing two of Georgia’s provinces, and blandly states that after some time most countries quietly acquiesced in the Russian ‘action’.
If the article was solely meant to frighten and intimidate Southeast Asian countries, it probably achieved its purpose, for most countries began to seriously rethink how to enhance their security. For the US, such articles are a political bonanza, since for countries in Southeast Asia the only recourse would be to naturally gravitate towards the United States. And that is precisely what is happening.
Perhaps, quickly realising the folly of posing such threats, the Chinese daily published another article entitled, ‘Patience and peace will keep serving our strategy’ by Sun Peisong, probably a pseudonym of another stakeholder in the Chinese political system. The article aptly surmised that the ‘US was capable of forming a coalition amongst neighbouring countries whose interests are affected by the territorial dispute and raising the alliance against China’ and that opinions like that of Long Tao only gave the US ‘rhetorical advantage against China’. In what was obviously an advice to hotheads amongst the Chinese leadership, the article urged ‘patience’, whose value in foreign policy ought not to be underestimated, and that such patience was ‘equally useful in the geopolitical conflicts (that we are facing).’ Finally, the article advised the leadership that ‘leverage is not gained through aggression, but through caution and wisdom.’
The publication of these two very contradictory articles on the same day clearly underlines the fact that the Chinese leadership is divided. It is perhaps too early to say which way the wind is blowing, but a hint is discernable in the public statement issued after the meeting between the Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and President Hu Jintao. Both sides declared that they would not ‘take action’ that could further ‘complicate the issue before the disputes are settled through dialogue’. In other words the two main protagonists in the South China Sea area agreed that they would not resort to the use of force, thus nullifying the ‘advice’ contained in the first article.
Another reason why the Chinese hastily corrected themselves perhaps was the fact that they could not have been unaware of the strong stand taken by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In a sharply worded press statement issued in July 2011, Clinton had stated that ‘we oppose the threat or the use of force by any claimant in the South China Sea to advance its claims or interfere with legitimate economic activity’ and that the US supports a ‘collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving various disputes.’ There was also a warning in that the US was ‘concerned’ about recent incidents and urged each party to ‘comply with its commitments.’
By issuing their ill thought through threats, all that the Chinese have achieved is to push countries in the region closer to each other and in the longer term to actively seek the cover of US military power. Yet another article in the ‘Global Times’ lamented that even Japan seems to be eyeing ‘further alliances on the South China Sea issue’ and that it was working with the US to ‘push for a multi-lateral negotiations framework within ASEAN.’ There were harsh words regarding the Japanese attempt to enter the dispute. It was iterated that the South China Sea issue was one between China and the relevant Southeast Asian countries and that the Japanese attempts to solve the issue through multilateral negotiations or to further internationalize it ‘will only cause more complications’. For the Japanese, the article sounded a word of caution stating that the Japanese approach ‘will adversely affect the harmonious atmosphere among adjacent countries while jeopardising Sino-Japanese mutual beneficial relationships.’ And finally a homily, ‘it is neither wise nor constructive for Japan to engage with irrelevant countries on the subject.’ The threat element could not have been missed by Japanese security planners.
The strategy that smaller countries of Southeast Asia seem to be following is to take a unified stance on the South China Sea issue and to negotiate collectively with China under the auspices of ASEAN. On their negotiating tactics, the Southeast Asian countries appear to have received the backing of both the US and Japan. For China this is not a welcome development. China had steadfastly maintained that it would like to deal with the countries of Southeast Asia on a bilateral basis and not through or under the auspices of ASEAN. China’s reasons for dealing with these countries on an individual basis are obvious, as it can easily negotiate from a position of strength in the bilateral format. Dealing with them on a collective basis is a whole new ball game.
The dilemma for the Chinese leadership thus remains acute. Any further bluster or threats will only further solidify the anti-Chinese stance that seems to be developing in Southeast Asia, backed from the outside by the US and Japan. The issuing of threats would leave them with few friends in Asia, with the notable exception of North Korea and Pakistan. On the other hand, vacillation or adoption of a softer approach might result in Chinese claims going up in smoke as Southeast Asian countries, with the active support of the US and Japan, seek to carve out their respective claims or come to an understanding amongst themselves without caring for the Chinese claims. A dreadful thought for an aspiring super power!
The author is a former Secretary, MEA and a Member of the National Human Rights Commission.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/ChinaandtheSouthChinaSeaDisputeInternalDifferencesandExternalRamifications_rskalha_191011