Originally Published 2012-05-10 00:00:00 Published on May 10, 2012
China's aggressive postures in the disputed South China Sea regions have not only increased the unease and apprehensions of the affected countries but have also drawn it to the US strategic trap, placing China in a no-win situation.
Is China's assertiveness landing it in a strategic trap?
Hu Jintao’s Chinese foreign policy seems to have undergone a perceptible shift in orientation and texture during the last few years commencing 2008. The old Chinese dictum of hiding one’s capabilities and biding time which found a revival in Deng’s 24 Character strategy on foreign and security policy - has given way to aggressive posturing by the Chinese as evidenced by its moves in the South/ East China seas. A shift that probably has received its impetus from China’s rapidly growing military capabilities and an increasing sense of having "arrived" in the international geo strategic scenario. Beijing’s successful staging of the Olympics reinforced this thought process and the other driver was the world financial crisis that humbled the acknowledged Western economic giants but left the Chinese economy relatively unscathed.

According to the Chinese this shift signifies the turning of the full circle from a time when it had to suffer humiliating encroachments by colonial oppression by foreign powers and Beijing was too weak to counter the sovereignty intrusions and reinforce its territorial claims. Currently with a near blue-water navy and spurred by increasing nationalist sentiment, China seems to be adopting a more aggressive posture naturally. This paradigm shift is significantly noticeable in the maritime scenario especially in the South and East China seas where large swathes are under dispute. Consequently China has reacted energetically to perceived sovereignty slights in these areas.

The lists of abrasive behavioral patterns at sea are many but the incident of the Chinese having taken a hard-line stance over Japan’s detention of Mr Zhan Qixiong Captain (since released) of the Chinese fishing trawler which was involved in a collision with Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats is a glaring example. The incident took place on 07 Sept 2010 near the disputed Senkaku islands (Diaoyu Islands according to the Chinese) in the East China Sea which is under control of the Japanese, having incorporated them into its territory in 1895 but is claimed by the Chinese. While the Chinese crew members were released, the Captain who had been charged with illegally operating in Japanese waters, ramming two Japanese ships and obstructing Japanese officers from performing their duties was detained for trial. However, this action was subsequently reversed and the Captain released with the Chinese demanding an "unconditional apology" for the arrest of the Captain.

This incident led Beijing to continuously up the ante and suspend ministerial-level contacts with Tokyo. The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also stated that he will not meet with Japanese Prime Minister during U.N. meetings in New York. Anti-Japan protests flared up in numerous locations around China, and the dispute has spilled into cultural ties. Beijing abruptly cancelled invitations to 1,000 Japanese youth scheduled to visit the Shanghai Expo, and the Japanese pop group SMAP has called off a concert in Shanghai. All these actions helped in rapidly enhancing the pressure on the Japanese to which they ultimately succumbed.

The dispute over these uninhabited islands, which are located west of Japan’s Okinawa Island, east of China’s south-eastern Fujian coast is less about the actual islands than the East China Sea itself. In addition to rich fishing grounds near these islands, the ocean seabed is thought to hold large energy deposits (estimated at over 100 billion barrels of oil and 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas): For resource hungry countries like China and Japan this is a tempting prize.

The sovereignty dispute in the East China Sea mainly concerns a body of water that separates China from the southern islands of Japan. At its broadest point, the East China Sea is only 360 nautical miles wide while at its narrowest point; it is only 180 miles wide. It is obvious that the EEZs of China and of Japan overlap and to compound the issue, the Chinese government claims an extremely large area of the East China Sea through its Law of Natural Prolongation. It asserts that its EEZ extends all the way to the Okinawa Trough, off the Japanese coast. To bolster its claim over islands in the region, China cites their usage by Chinese fishermen since the fifteenth century.

In 1992, China passed the "Laws of Territorial Waters and Contiguous Zone" which incorporated Diayotai Islands (in East China Sea) along with the Paracels and Spartly Islands (in South China Sea). The law, for the first time, authorized the Chinese Navy to use force to evict foreign naval vessels operating in these waters.

As another sign of its growing assertiveness the Chinese view the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea - the so-called "near seas" - as core regions of strategic interest along with Taiwan and Tibet- in which the Chinese seek to become the predominant military power.

Another example of growing Chinese assertiveness was evidenced by the recent Impeccable incident in which tensions were raised after an unarmed US navy surveillance vessel was jostled by five Chinese ships in the South China Sea on 08 March 2010. (This happened for the third time since it was earlier accosted by the Chinese naval ships twice earlier - on March 4 and 7th 2010.) The Pentagon accused the Chinese vessels of "harassment" during its routine operations in international waters while Beijing contested saying that USNS Impeccable behaved "like a spy". It accused it of breaking international law by operating in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to the south of Hainan Island with the main objective of detecting activities of the Chinese submarines deployed at the Sanya Submarine Base - which was probably a true statement.

However experts like Mark Valencia were quick to state that "China has done things in Japan which it has accused the US of," These actions include infringements of the Law of the Sea, such as having a submarine submerged while on transit instead of being on the surface, or sailing intelligence-gathering ships around in other nations’ waters.

Others were a bit more balanced and took a different viewpoint in which Haacke from the London School of Economics stated that "While there may even be some sympathy for China’s robust actions given more widespread concerns about how the US collects intelligence, China challenging the US creates instability and is therefore generally not in the interest of other Asian countries,"

In an another incident a Chinese Song class submarine chose to come up and break surface near USS Kitty Hawk, after penetrating the screen of accompanying escort ships - while the group was exercising near Okinawa. US military experts say this happened during the end of 2007 and in all probability was a repeat of an earlier incident. While prima facie such attempts may not signify a display of aggressive behavior and is more of a tongue-in- cheek attempt along with a display of an astounding professional capability - but it is certainly a dangerous attempt since it can easily lead to accidental firing coupled to loss of life and escalation of conflict.

The Chinese PLA Navy has also been quite active in the seas near Japan, raising the latter’s security concerns and apprehensions. Recently Japan’s Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa on 14 Apr 2010 said that Tokyo is investigating an incident in which two Chinese submarines and several warships were spotted in international waters off the southern island of Okinawa. "We are now conducting a detailed analysis, and will decide on our response after a thorough investigation, including whether there was any intent toward this country or not,"

For decades, the Chinese have actively sparred with Southeast Asian nations(mainly Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei ) over control of nearly 200 tiny islands, rocks and spits of sand that dot the South and East China seas. As Mark Landler of The New York Times explains: "China’s maritime ambitions have expanded along with its military and economic muscle. It has long laid claim to islands in the South China Sea because they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits And it has put American officials on notice that it will not brook foreign interference in the waters off its southeastern coast, which it views as a ’core interest’ of sovereignty."

The Chinese aggressive behavioral patterns have become more pronounced in recent years and have been evidenced by the recent example in March 2011, when Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine research vessel, prompting Manila to scramble planes and ships to a dispute in the Reed Bank area.

Again contesting sovereignty over a small group of rock formations known as Scarborough Shoal, recently in Feb 2012 a Philippines Navy surveillance plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats in the shoal and Philippine Navy sent its largest Hamilton-class cutter, to investigate. Two Chinese surveillance ships arrived soon after the warship inspected these fishing boats. The situation escalated and the Chinese claimed that twelve of their fishing ships were being harassed in an area that belonged to them.

The signing of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in South China seas (DOC) in 2002 for peaceful resolution of all disputes and the subsequent attempt by the ASEAN countries to upgrade it to a more binding Code of Conduct (COC) has elicited a pessimistic response from most analysts. With frequent transgressions of the DOC and the aggressive posturing of the Chinese it is most unlikely that the new document - if agreed upon - will prove to be a harbinger of peaceful resolution in the entire area.

Hence given the rising tensions in the area - a new twist to the scenario was added earlier when on the way to her daughter’s wedding, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated at the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) meeting in Vietnam that the US was willing to act as a mediator in talks over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Clinton called the dispute "a leading diplomatic priority" for the United States and voiced her country’s willingness to mediate a resolution. She added that the United States supported "a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants" for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.

The Vietnamese and Philippines were relieved to have the U.S. playing a leadership role in the dispute since it effectively declared Chinese claims to the entire sea "invalid" as was quoted in The Washington Post, citing an anonymous "senior Administration official" on the issue.

In turn the Chinese were quick to question U.S. intentions, accusing Washington of "serving its own ulterior motives" and "attempting to coerce Southeast Asian nations into blowing out of proportions the South China Sea issue."

Yet strategically speaking US laid a strategic trap for Beijing in the South China Sea. If China were to stands up to US interference in its backyard and present itself as the regional power, it risked pushing wary neighbours into the US camp a scenario that is loathe to China.

Paradoxically, as the capability of the Chinese economy and military increases - it will keep adopting more aggressive postures at problem solving some of which it believes are remnants of the time when China was weak. This might alienate the Chinese more and more from its neighbours. As a corollary the more dependent smaller Asian become on the China’s economy, the more uneasy they will be about its power. Thus, placing China in a no-win situation.

It may be summarized and said that there is no doubt that the Chinese have overcome the phase of "biding time" and have started taking a more assertive and at times more aggressive posture at sea. A pattern that is also being witnessed in other spheres as well. This can be evidenced by the Chinese choosing to cut off military ties with the U.S. for a period of time in anger over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama - Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader.

With respect to India, issuing stapled visas to Indian citizens from J& K (Jammu and Kashmir) and Arunachal Pradesh, denying the Indian General a visa for an official visit on the pretext that he commanded troops in Jammu and Kashmir - knowing that it would raise the hackles of Indian authorities is a case point.

However such behavior is not without its draw backs as China keeps drawing itself to the strategic trap that is set by steadily painting itself into a corner. As China becomes economically and militarily capable and keeps adopting more aggressive postures at problem solving, its neighbours undoubtedly will become increasingly apprehensive may well drive them closer into the US camp - an aspect that would be a Hobson’s choice for the Chinese.

(The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He is also the Co Chair of the CSCAP International Study Group on Naval Enhancement in Asia Pacific)

* Click here for more on South China Sea developments in SOUTH CHINA SEA MONITOR

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