Troubled Relations In Troubled Waters Of South China Sea – Analysis


The calm but cold message delivered to Nepal by China’s premier Wen Jiabao at Rio and the Chinese vice Minister at the International Department – Ai Ping during his recent visit to Nepal is another clear signal that China is pursuing a more confident and assertive posture in its foreign policy and is prepared to act aggressively as an anti status quo power especially in South, East and South East Asia.

Displaying a rare mix of contradictory gesture of a profound good will and a clear warning with a broad hint, China these days seems prepared to upend the existing geo-political weight and balance of power that India in South Asia and United States in East and South East Asia enjoy. And in its relations with Nepal, China merely tried to deliver this message silently but strongly to Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and India as well. For Nepal China’s new diplomatic initiatives stands quite contrary that Nepal has experienced in its relations since 1955 – with few exceptions on the heydays of Cultural Revolution.

This is not an event but a new trend that China is pursuing in its diplomacy. According to a latest article by Willy Lam in Wall Street Journal, China since 2010 has exhibited trends that are more pronounced among People’s Liberation Army (PLA) generals who are pressing to “stage for a resolute self defense” against the Deng’s diplomatic dictum “to keep a low profile and never take the lead.”

Lam has referred some chorus by PLA generals like Rear Admiral Yang Yi and Major General Han Xudong. According to them the time has come for China to smash its anti -expansionist doctrine and follow an expansionist policy in the military, geopolitical and economic areas – helping China to speed up its journey from a regional to a global power. Lam continues with another Major General Zhang Zhaozhong who recently claimed that there are “more than one million traitors” in China and elaborated that some of the Chinese scholars who are trained by the Americans and are helping the U.S. to fool the Chinese.

Major-General Xu Guangyu has also been raising voice in meeting American challenge and protecting Chinese national interestsbeyond its land, sea and air spaces including the waters of East and South East Asia.

Another high ranking PLA official Major General Luo Yuan recently by referring to a possible naval battle with the Philippines is reported to have said that “We have repeatedly exercised forbearance—and our patience has run its course. There is no more need to take caution.”

Wall Street Journal further says that since mid-2011, even acclaimed academics such as Messrs. Wang and Chu have not dared to contradict the generals for their growing clout in ruling party and government hierarchy.

Later this year when the Chinese Communist Party will select its new leadership, the military that occupies the 20 % of the seats in the central committee will indubitably gives PLA generals a major say in state of polity in China and its daily administration s. Obviously, they are clamoring for more say during the 18th Congress in October this year.

China’s Aggressive Diplomacy and American Asian Pivot

Perhaps Chinese military’s strong verbal tirade against America was first initiated by Rear Admiral Yang Yi who in August 2010, writing in China Daily and the day after in PLA daily accused United States seeking to encircle China and lead a chaotic approach toward Beijing – with series of military drills near its borders, stirring tensions in the region and challenging China’s core interests in the region.

According to The Telegraph (U.K.), the same year, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in his interview said “In the coming five years, our military will push forward preparations for military conflict in every strategic direction. . . “We may be living in peaceful times, but we can never forget war, never . . . put the bayonets and guns away.”

Mr. Liang further added that the modernization of the Chinese military cannot depend on others, and cannot be bought as the more their economy and society will develop faster. Enjoying the boosted comprehensive national power, China will take the opportunity and speed up modernization of the military, Liang commented.

Earlier in March 2010, when China told U.S that South China Sea was a core interest region related to its sovereignty and territorial integrity, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates publically insisted on the freedom of navigation in South China Sea as U.S national interest and would oppose the use of force or threat by any country in the region.

In a study made by “Center for a New American Security” Patrick M Cronin and Robert D Kaplan have stressed that due to the economic and military rise of China American interests are increasingly at risk in the South China Sea. Owing to this, United States and other South East Asian countries have strongly stated and conveyed their commitment to have their deep and abiding interest in the waters of South China Sea remain open to all for both the trade and peaceful military activities. But China has continued to challenge the rights of other countries both by historical maritime norms and by developing military capabilities to threaten their access to the maritime region of the Sea.

China claims nearly 90 percent of South China Sea territory that accounts 10 percent of the global fisheries and carries some 5 trillion in ship borne trade. According to Cronin and Kaplan the Sea that joins the Pacific and Indian Ocean is the demographic hub of 21st Century global economy accounting 1.2 billion in U.S. trade. The sea that decides the fate of half of the World’s inhabitants across the region and around the globe is also an area where countries like China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have their conflicting claims over a sea bed that reserves some 55 billion tons of oil and 20 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

Consequently, this geo-economic and political setting of South China Sea and surrounding waters was at the crux of Obama’s “Asian pivot” that in future will demand extensive security partnership and alliances with countries having vital stakes in South China Sea.

Tension Mounted over South China Sea after Sansha city plan

On June 21, the day Vietnam passed a new Law on Sea asserting its rights over Spratly and Paracel islands, Chinese Government claiming the Vietnamese Law illegal made a major strategic breakthrough that was followed by its decision to establish a City of Sansha to govern the disputed Xisha (Paracel), Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) and Nansha (Spratly) island groups. China’s claim over these islands will logically give China the sovereign rights over South China Sea. After one week of this announcement, Chinese defense ministry declared its plan to develop the island groups and adjacent waters as a military base and dispatched “combat-ready patrols” near the contested islands, in response to Vietnamese air patrols.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry called the Chinese move illegal and asserted that the islands it claimed were entirely within its 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EZZ) as endorsed by the International Law of Sea.

Similarly the Philippines immediately lodged a strong protest against China’s establishment of Sansha City that covers the Spratly Group of Islands, Paracel Islands, Bajo de Masinloc and Macclesfield Bank. In a press briefing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused China for violating Philippine’s territorial sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc – the Philippine name for the disputed islands.”

Global Times – the noted Chinese newspaper did not miss to articulate the hardest posture and stated “The Philippines and Vietnam do deserve to be punished. If they go to extremes in their provocations against China, it is likely that they will finally be punished through means including military strikes.” The tabloid further discloses that the idea of establishing Sansha city had emerged as early as 2007, but was shelved due to protests by Vietnam, but as the time changes, to meet the pressing provocations by Vietnam and Philippines, China has come with a concrete step, signaling its firm determination to administer the Nansha Islands and nearby sea areas.

Interestingly, amid rival claimants on South China Sea islands between China, Vietnam and the Philippine, Global Times has published another article on June 28 entitled “China Won but Never Wanted Sino Indian War”. Why did Global Times thought it necessary to publish an article about a War fought half a century ago with an observation that the war was fought because “the Nehru administration, encouraged by the US and the Soviets, brought more trouble to the Sino-Indian border between 1959 and 1962.”

The hard hitting conclusion the Global Times conferred was that the humiliating defeat India was forced to swallow in 1962 brought the longest peace in Sino- Indian border. Perhaps by saying this Global Times is reading the mind of Chinese leaders who are thinking about a limited war against Vietnam and Philippines and buy peace with its contestants in South China Sea.
If all these clues are put together along with new American initiatives to rebalance its military engagement in Asia- Pacific, South China Sea may erupt into a war zone in a most complicated shatter belt of the world.

This article appeared in The Reporter Weekly  and is reprinted with permission.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

One thought on “Troubled Relations In Troubled Waters Of South China Sea – Analysis

  • August 25, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    China/s claims in the South China sea are simllar in nature to other nations extending resource claims onto continental shelves.

    This follows the extension of the 12 mile-20km limit to 200miles for economic purposes.

    Al of above are aggressive but that is the nature of 21st century relations.


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