Tensions rapidly escalating around South China Sea
China’s territorial assertions have alienated almost everyone in its neighborhood. | Reuters.
China’s assertion that almost all of the South China Sea and adjacent waters are part of its territory seems to be growing more dangerous with each passing week.
China and Japan are scrambling fighter jets in their faceoff over disputed islands. Last month, China “painted” a Japanese military helicopter and destroyer with weapons-lock radar — bringing harsh criticism from Japanese and American military officials.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and several other states are responding angrily to their own territorial disputes with China, so that a common refrain among analysts and observers has become “one stupid mistake could start a war.” Already, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has told the state’s military to “prepare for war.”
But as this crisis continues and worsens month after month, the one player seldom heard from is the United States. And China is making it plain that Beijing is little worried about America.
“From a Chinese perspective, 2013 appears to bear similarities to 1913,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s official think tank, said last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.
One century ago “marked the rise of the West,” he intoned. But today, “the opposite is happening with money, power and influence flowing away from America and the West into Asia.
“It’s déjà vu all over again” — except in reverse, he said.
Ruan, like many other Chinese, also blames the United States military’s “pivot” to Asia for stirring trouble in the region. But in fact, China’s aggressive expansionism began even before that — born of two domestic political needs.
Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, noted in an interview that a few years ago some in the military were growing restless and wanted to start some kind of military conflict with Japan, China’s longtime adversary, to regain their relevance. President Hu Jintao was unwilling to go along with that.
But as China’s social and economic situation continued to deteriorate, Xia and others said, in the spring of 2009 another opportunity arose for re-establishing military relevance — while also distracting disgruntled Chinese with a new foreign conflict. That’s when most nations had to file papers with the United Nations stating their offshore jurisdictions as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty.
Much earlier, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China had issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because a few years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.
But in 2009, when it came time for each nation to give the United Nations documentation of its claim to maritime territory, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map. Since then, it has repeatedly asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”
“This was the first time China had brought this up since 1946,” Yann-huei Song, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American studies in Taipei, Taiwan, said in an interview.
So China’s claim that U.S. provocation is responsible for the South China Sea dispute is wrong. President Barack Obama didn’t first raise his notion of the pivot from the Middle East to Asia until late in 2011. And since then, the State Department has repeatedly said it would not take sides in the debate — even after China changed the map of its territory printed in Chinese passports to include 80 percent of the South China Sea. (Vietnam refuses to stamp those new passports. Instead, it stamps a piece of paper and inserts that into the passport.)
Visiting the region last fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Asian states to draw up a code of conduct for the nations bordering the South China Sea but added: “The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims or land features” — even though the farthest point China now claims is more than 1,200 miles away from the Chinese mainland. (One reason the U.S. may be deferring is that Congress never ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty. Republicans blocked ratification once again last year. )
That’s just fine with Beijing. “China doesn’t want the U.S. involved in any way,” said Jose Cuisia Jr., the Philippines’ ambassador to the United States, at a Stanford University conference.
China’s territorial assertions have alienated almost everyone in the neighborhood — perhaps finally giving the Chinese military what it wanted: new relevance.
“Yes, China doesn’t have any partners in the region anymore,” Song said. Except one — Cambodia.
China is pouring more money into Cambodia than all the other donor nations combined — $8 billion in the past few years. After meeting with Chinese officials in Beijing last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen won a commitment for an additional $5 billion over the next several years. Most important, that money comes with no strings attached — no demands to end corruption, home seizures, dissident repression or any of Cambodia’s many other social ills — problems also endemic to China. China has essentially purchased Cambodia’s loyalty, which has proved to be quite useful for Beijing.
At the same time, landlocked Laos is an ambivalent ally. The two nations have a fraught history. North Korea is a resentful, dependent state. Everyone else in the region is angry over China’s expansionist maritime claims.
Last year, Cambodia held the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN’s two meetings last year were held in Phnom Penh with Hun Sen as conference chairman. The first was in July, and when ASEAN delegates traveled to Phnom Penh from the airport, they saw billboards along the highway honoring Chinese President Hu, as well as hundreds of tiny Chinese flags hanging everywhere.
Hu had visited Hun Sen a short time earlier, but neither country said anything meaningful about their discussion. In the region, however, all the speculation centered on China’s concern that the ASEAN states would try to put out a joint code of conduct for the ongoing South China Sea dispute.
Hu, it was said, wanted Hun Sen to be sure that did not happen, and the Cambodian leader manage to keep that subject off the agenda. When the conference ended, ASEAN issued no final statement for the first time in its 45-year history.
Then, in November, Obama attended the second and final ASEAN conference in Cambodia. He was the first American president to visit the country, and as he was driven from the airport into town the streets were virtually deserted. All he could see from his vehicle window were Chinese flags and billboard portraits, this time of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who was also attending the meeting. A few days earlier, thousands of Cambodians had gathered along the streets to wave and cheer as Wen drove into town, regional papers reported.
At the end of the meeting, Hun Sen read a statement asserting that ASEAN had reached consensus: The South China Sea controversy would not be “internationalized” — meaning that each ASEAN nation would have to negotiate with China on its own.
That’s exactly what China wanted.
“China wants bilateral talks with each of the nations,” said I-Hsin Chen, vice president of the Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies in Taiwan. “But the U.S. and Asian states want multilateral talks.”
As the conference closed, nearly all of the other ASEAN members angrily complained that they’d never agreed to any such thing. But it was too late.
Still, as that conference closed, Cambodia’s chairmanship ended, and Hun Sen passed the gavel to Brunei — a small, wealthy state that will serve as chairman through 2013. It takes no money from China; Brunei doesn’t need it. Brunei also is involved in a barely significant territorial dispute with China — a submerged reef that both nations claim.
But even with a more neutral ASEAN chairman, Cuisia, the Philippines’ ambassador, warned: “Territorial disputes between states are always difficult to resolve.”
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.