SINGAPORE — Is China becoming more assertive in enforcing its claims to control as much as 80 percent of the South China Sea, a claim that includes sovereignty over dozens of islands disputed with several Southeast Asian states?
Recent developments certainly point in this direction. Japan, the United States, India and Australia — all powers with a strong stake in regional stability — are watching the situation closely.
In an apparent demonstration of its growing maritime enforcement capabilities, the Chinese navy last month ended a long-range deployment into the South China Sea. The exercise included some of China’s most modern warships and lasted nearly three weeks.
The flotilla from China’s North Sea Fleet based in Qingdao sailed into the Spratly archipelago, all or some of which is claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The Chinese ships anchored off Fiery Cross Reef, seized from Vietnamese forces in a 1988 battle and now a Chinese base with an early warning radar station. Meanwhile, Chinese combat aircraft from several different airfields on the mainland were holding exercises that tested their stealth and night-flying skills, midair refueling, radar jamming and simulated bombing raids out into the South China Sea.
Two weeks ago, China’s fisheries enforcement agency confirmed that it had started regular patrols to protect Chinese fishing boats in and around the Spratly Islands, several dozen of which are garrisoned by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. The agency said that two new ships had been sent from China’s Hainan Island to replace two vessels that had been patrolling in the area since April 1.
Chinese officials say that Chinese trawlers are repeatedly harassed and sometimes confiscated by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia despite the fact that they are operating in China’s maritime zone.
Announcing the regular deployments to protect against piracy, seizure and attempts to chase Chinese fishing vessels out of the area, Liu Tianrong, deputy head of China’s South Sea Fisheries Administration, said “providing protection in this region of extraordinary security threats will help underline Chinese existing sovereign rights over the territory.”
At about the same time the Chinese navy was showing its ability to project coordinated military power deep into the South China Sea, another Chinese fleet that included advanced surface combatants and submarines steamed through the East China Sea into the Pacific south of Japan, prompting protests from Tokyo after Chinese helicopters allegedly flew too close to shadowing Japanese vessels.
China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper commented April 27 that as China was assuming more responsibilities in East Asia, there would be more frequent Chinese military exercises in international waters, especially since the U.S. was reinforcing its defenses in the western Pacific.
“Naturally, the transformation of the Chinese navy will bring changes to the strategic pattern in East Asia and the west Pacific Ocean that has lasted for the last five decades,” Global Times said, adding that the transformation was positive because China did not intend to “challenge the U.S. in the central Pacific or engage in a military clash with Japan in close waters, though it is willing to protect its core interests at any cost.”
The New York Times reported recently that, in March, China told two visiting senior U.S. officials that Beijing would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea, saying it was now part of China’s “core” sovereignty interests.
The U.S. officials were quoted as saying it was the first time that the Chinese had put the South China Sea into the category of a core national interest, on a par with Taiwan and Tibet.
This implies that China will, if necessary, use force or the threat of force to protect its claimed national sovereignty on land or at sea in the area.
In an address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in March, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean noted that China usually took a “softly, gently” approach in Southeast Asia, “but not if its core national interests are threatened.”
“We saw this in the Chinese reaction to the joint Malaysia-Vietnam submission last year to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on their claims in the South China. China responded the very next day, with a counterclaim that extended as far as the waters off East Malaysia and the Natuna Islands of Indonesia.”
Justifying China’s naval buildup at a meeting in Beijing of the China-ASEAN Defense and Security Dialogue in late March, Senior Col. Chen Zhou, who is attached to the Academy of Military Sciences, said China was “the only member of the U.N. Security Council that has not realized complete reunification.” He added that: “We still face many challenges, such as maritime disputes with other countries.”
China’s evident assertiveness in the South China Sea comes amid continuing divisions in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations over whether and how to react. The current ASEAN chair, Vietnam, which claims the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands as well as the Spratly Island chain, has been unable to get to the group to act as a bloc in dealing with Beijing.
Without a unified ASEAN strategy, other interested powers including Japan, the U.S., India and Australia, will also find it harder to constrain China.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.