SINGAPORE – Buoyed by growing economic and military strength, China is drawing more lines in the sand in the vast, but disputed, offshore zones in Asia over which it claims sovereignty or jurisdiction. These “red lines,” which China warns should not be crossed, affect the vital interests of Taiwan, Southeast Asia and Japan.
They also test the resolve of the United States to continue to support a treaty and partnership system with its allies and friends that has been a foundation for stability and growth in East Asia since the end of World War II.
China wants to tilt the balance of power in the region so that it has more influence and the U.S. less. But the red line policy is a challenge for China as well: how will it react if the lines it draws are crossed by the U.S. and other countries?
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan. It says it owns islands in the South China Sea also claimed (and in some cases garrisoned) by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Beijing says islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan rightfully belong to China. It asserts jurisdiction over the surrounding waters of all these islands.
Although often treated as separate issues, the Chinese claims are linked and part of a strategic fabric. Taiwan’s Deputy Defense Minister Andrew Yang explained in a recent interview with Defense News that if China took control of Taiwan and had bases there it would open the door for Chinese power projection into both the East and South China seas.
“Taiwan would become an important hub and stepping stone for China to exert and expand its presence in the South China Sea, which is certainly not in the U.S. interest,” he said. “It would immediately challenge U.S. strategic calculations and its security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region.” Yang added that if Taiwan became part of China, “then immediately the United States will lose a vital interest in this part of the world.”
Chinese red lines in the South China Sea have been well-publicized. They include no fishing in some areas without Beijing’s permission, and no seabed energy development in others, including waters that both the Philippines and Vietnam say are in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia and form part of Exclusive Economic Zones extending 370 km from their shores.
China has also set three conditions for a continued improvement in military ties with the U.S. The first is restraint in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The second is no more U.S. military exercises with Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea, even allies such as the Philippines, amid tensions with China.
The third is for the U.S. to reduce the frequency of its air and sea reconnaissance (a euphemism for intelligence gathering) against China, and to limit this activity to areas further from the Chinese coast. Will the U.S. comply? Its top military officer, Adm. Michael Mullen, has indicated that both exercises and reconnaissance will continue as normal.
To underline the continuing relevance of the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty and the importance the U.S. attaches to freedom of navigation in and through the South China Sea, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John Stennis and its escort warships are due to dock in Manila bay late this month to mark the 60th anniversary of the pact.
The carrier group is on its way to support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a regular pattern of American military deployments from the Pacific to the oil-rich but volatile Middle East. Of course, a port visit such as the Stennis is scheduled to make to Manila and the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group has just made to Hong Kong (with at least the tacit approval of Beijing) is not a military exercise of the kind China has objected to.
More difficult for the U.S. to finesse is Taiwan’s request for 66 advanced F-16 jet fighters to replace 145 older models of the same aircraft. The sale is strongly opposed by China. Some U.S. analysts have called for a reassessment of arms transfers to Taiwan. They argue that doing so would smooth relations with China and defuse an Asian flash point.
When the Obama administration authorized the sale in January 2010 of $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, including missile systems and transport helicopters, China suspended all military contacts with the U.S. for about a year.
Washington is due to make decision by Oct. 1 on Taiwan’s request for the new F-16s. A possible compromise that may be less objectionable to China could involve the U.S. upgrading Taiwan’s existing F-16s to make them more capable.
Whatever the outcome, it will be a litmus test of U.S. resolution in the face of Beijing’s red line diplomacy.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.