What China has joined together

by Michael Richardson

SINGAPORE — China takes pride in the way science and technology have been used to modernize its armed forces.

One of the roles of the increasingly powerful Chinese military is to enforce claims to land territory, sea space, fisheries, and ocean bed energy and mineral resources. These claims are disputed with neighboring states in a zone stretching from the mountainous border with India to three seas off the coast of the Chinese mainland — the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.

A wave of Chinese nationalism has accompanied Beijing’s attempts to recover areas it says were illegally taken away when the country was weak, and to create a strong maritime security cordon. But in the fervor, China appears to have forgotten one of the fundamental laws of physics — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

What applies in science is also a feature of statecraft. As a rising China asserts what it regards as its rights and interests, countries affected by this expansive policy push back, often by joining forces to resist.

The latest reaction came last Friday in New York at only the second summit meeting between leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United States since the first was held in Singapore last November. U.S. President Barack Obama and ASEAN representatives issued a joint statement saying their comprehensive partnership would be elevated to a “strategic level.”

Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet, who cohosted the lunch meeting with Obama, said relations between ASEAN and the United States play “a very important role in the security, peace and development of the region” and should be deepened.

The joint statement, issued by the White House, did not mention China or the South China Sea, one of the world’s key shipping lanes, by name. However, it “reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international maritime law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

Beijing says it has “indisputable” sovereignty over islands and surrounding waters and seabed covering as much as 80 percent of the South China Sea. Other claimants to all or part of this vast zone in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia include Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The last four are ASEAN members.

While there have been no serious armed clashes in the South China Sea for years, China and some other claimants garrison some of the disputed Spratly Islands in the central and southern section of the sea have been building up their military presence in the region.

This is despite a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea agreed by ASEAN member states and China in 2002 in which claimants agreed to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” The declaration is voluntary, although ASEAN has been urging China to negotiate a legally binding accord.

Although Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have been reinforcing their presence in the Spratlys, China is by far the strongest of the claimants in terms of economic and military clout. Hence, its words and actions are closely scrutinized.

Earlier this year, senior U.S. officials said they were told by Chinese counterparts that Beijing now regards its South China Sea claims as one of its “core national interests” on a par with Tibet and Taiwan. The implication was clear: that China reserved the right to use force to recover lost territory and forge what it regards as national unity in a hotly contested zone.

Even before the ASEAN-U.S. summit, Beijing tried to put pressure on the participants, continuing its long-standing attempt to divide and rule. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said that the South China Sea disputes were a matter only for China and the countries directly involved. Countries without claims should stay out. In an obvious reference to the U.S., she said that foreign intervention “will only complicate rather than help solve the issue.”

Yet across Asia, China’s attempts to throw its weight around are proving to be counterproductive, prompting key Asian countries to respond by aligning their interests and engaging the U.S. as a counterbalance. China seems to be intent on trying to intimidate three of the four Asian allies of the U.S. — Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — while simultaneously confronting the dominant South Asian power, India, and alienating many of the 10 ASEAN countries including Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. All of these nations have developed extensive commercial ties with China, which recently overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy after the U.S. They would much prefer not to put these trade, investment and tourism links at risk.

But the scope of China’s land and sea claims and Beijing’s evident determination to enforce them is now causing widespread concern in Asia.

Japan and South Korea are strengthening their previously languishing alliances with the U.S. to balance what they see as an increasingly assertive China. The Philippines is looking both to the U.S. and ASEAN for support, as is Vietnam which is leading ASEAN this year. Last month, Vietnam held its first defense talks with its former Indochina war enemy, the U.S.

India’s Defense Minister A. K. Antony visited Washington this week for talks with top U.S. officials on ways to expand India-U.S. security cooperation. “We want to develop friendly relations with China,” Antony said earlier this month. “However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that China has been improving its military and physical infrastructure (in Tibet and other areas close to India). In fact, there has been an increasing assertiveness on the part of China.”

Some Chinese military analysts have accused Washington of orchestrating an increasingly tight encirclement of China in a bid to contain its growing power. If hedging against a potentially belligerent China by deterring use of force and raising its costs is what these analysts have in mind, then China has largely itself to blame.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.