China risks war as it pushes territorial claims on three fronts

As it pursues its territorial ambitions, China is following an increasingly belligerent course that could easily tip into war with its neighbours.

In the last few days, elements of the People’s Liberation Army have aggressively intruded into the territory of both Japan and India.

At the same time, China has ratcheted up its rhetoric with Vietnam and the Philippines as those countries attempt to assert their sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Chinese surveillance ships sail in formation in waters claimed by Japan near disputed islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea on April 23.

Of the three flashpoints, by far the most threatening is the increasingly aggressive games of chicken Beijing’s military forces are playing over and around Japan’s Senkaku Islands, known in Chinese as the Diaoyutai, in the East China Sea.

Last Tuesday, 40 Chinese military planes, mostly jet fighters, flew close to the cluster of five uninhabited islands, prompting Japan to scramble F-15 fighter planes from an airbase on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

At the same time, eight Chinese maritime surveillance ships entered the 12-nautical-mile zone around the islands marking Japan’s territorial waters.

Japanese newspapers quoted a Tokyo government official as describing last week’s actions by the Chinese forces as “an unprecedented threat. If such a show of force continues, it is feared it could lead to a situation where the Japanese air defence force may not be able to cope.”

The incursions are the biggest since China started this campaign of elbowing the Japanese defence forces on Dec. 13 last year.

That was the anniversary of the 1937 capture of the Chinese city of Nanking by invading Japanese forces, which was followed by a massacre of civilians.

One of the most aggressive Chinese moves was on Jan. 30 when a Chinese frigate locked its missile-control radar on a Japanese navy destroyer and later on a Japanese helicopter.

Locking radar onto a target is the last step before firing a missile, and tells an adversary that an attack could be just seconds away.

In such a situation, it is all too easy for misjudgments to be made and a conflict to start by accident.

But China is evidently prepared to take that risk in pursuit of its claim to the Senkakus.

On Friday, a spokeswomen for China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters that the Senkakus are one of the country’s “core interests,” a phrase it usually reserves for issues which Beijing considers non-negotiable and over which it is prepared to go to war.

The “core interests” phrase is also applied by Beijing to its claim to the island nation of Taiwan, and to almost the entire South China Sea as far south as the territorial waters of Indonesia.

Beijing’s long-standing border dispute with India in the Himalayas, which spawned a brief but intense war in 1962, comes from China’s occupation of India’s northern neighbour, Tibet.

In recent years, both China and India have beefed up their military presence on the border, and although there are mechanisms in place to minimize conflicts on the ground, these happen with regularity.

On April 15, China sent a platoon of soldiers 20 kilometres inside Indian-controlled territory, where they have established a camp.

The camp is at Ladakh, close to the strategic Karakoram Pass.

India has called on China to remove the soldiers, but several meetings between local army commanders and diplomats have failed to resolve the issue.

The incursion by the Chinese has raised a public storm in India, with many commentators accusing Beijing of taking advantage of the weakness of the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is set to retire before next year’s elections.

There are also demands that India use force if necessary to get the Chinese to withdraw, otherwise Beijing will be encouraged to continue trying to change the reality on the ground.

The reality on the ground is also changing rapidly in the South China Sea, where China is moving forcefully to establish a presence and thus a semblance of sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly chains of islands, islets and shoals.

The Spratly and Paracel groups, whose exclusive economic zones include bountiful fishing grounds and large submarine oil and gas deposits, are also claimed in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

But China is acting with bullish belligerence in defence of another of its “core interests,” confronting Philippines’ coast guard vessels and harassing Vietnamese survey ships in contested waters.

China’s state-controlled media has threatened both Vietnam and the Philippines with war, and on Friday, Beijing condemned the Manila government for taking their dispute to the United Nations.

Vietnam, meanwhile, is strengthening its relations with the United States as a bulwark against China.

In a highly visible sign of Washington’s support for the Hanoi government, on Tuesday last week the U.S. consul-general in Ho Chi Minh City accompanied Vietnamese officials on a visit to an island claimed by China in the Paracel group.



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