Beijing’s Asia power play


China’s economic and military might has grown in recent years along with its overseas trade and investment. China is becoming an oceanic power with growing clout in the Asia-Pacific region.

It demonstrated naval, air and amphibious strength this year by holding exercises in the South and East China seas, where it has unresolved territorial and maritime boundary disputes with several Southeast Asian countries and with Japan.

Both areas appear to have become core national interests, meaning that sovereignty and other claims to control by China will be vigorously defended.

Recently the Yellow Sea between Korea and China was added to the areas where Beijing is warning the United States and its allies not to intrude. “We resolutely oppose any foreign military vessel and planes conducting activities in the Yellow Sea and China’s coastal waters that undermine China’s security interests,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson declared in July.

But Beijing may have overplayed its hand, miscalculated the resolve of the Obama administration, and underestimated regional alarm at assertive Chinese actions. Nearly half of the 27 delegations taking part in a July 23 meeting in Hanoi of the ASEAN Regional Forum on security raised concerns about potential instability in the South China Sea. Japan was one of the countries voicing its concern.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that America had “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” She added that while the U.S. did not take sides on the competing territorial disputes (mainly involving China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines), Washington opposed the use or threat of force by any claimant.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi responded in a statement in English posted July 27 on the foreign ministry Web site. He said that Clinton’s “seemingly impartial remarks were in effect an attack on China and were designed to give the international community a wrong impression that the situation in the South China Sea is a cause for grave concern.” If navigation freedom and safety had been hindered, why had seaborne trade been growing so rapidly and why had China become the number one trading partner of many Southeast Asian countries, he asked rhetorically.

What may happen next? A key underlying problem is that China and the U.S. have sharply divergent views not about civilian shipping, but about the rights of foreign military ships and aircraft in waters and airspace around China.

China insists that any foreign naval vessels entering its territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles from the coast must first get permission. The U.S. says they have right to innocent passage under international law.

What has proven even more contentious in recent years are the divergent views of Beijing and Washington on military activities allowed in and over China’s Exclusive Economic Zone stretching out to as far as 200 nautical miles from the coast.

The U.S. says this zone is part of the high seas and international airspace where its military have rights of transit, maneuvering, exercise, flight operations, surveillance and intelligence collection, surveys, munitions testing and firing, communications and cable laying. China says such activities are prohibited without prior approval. However, Chinese naval ships or auxiliaries regularly conduct submarine operations, military surveys, and surveillance and intelligence gathering in the EEZs of Japan and other nations in the Asia-Pacific region without approval.

U.S. survey ships were harassed at least three times last year by Chinese vessels in China’s EEZ in the South China Sea.

The U.S. and South Korea recently started a series of sea exercises to deter North Korea. The first was held in waters to the east of Korea. But U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that some of the exercises later in the year would be held west of Korea in the Yellow Sea, despite China’s objections.

The U.S. has a long-standing Freedom of Navigation program. It is used to challenge what Washington regards as excessive coastal state claims over oceans and airspace anywhere in the world. The challenge can involve protests made through diplomatic channels, negotiations, and sending US warships and combat aircraft to assert rights of passage.

This is where the danger arises. China and the U.S. have no military crisis management system in place. China suspended military contacts in January after the U.S. said it would supply defensive arms to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a rebel province. Among activities frozen were the bilateral Military Maritime Consultative Agreement set up to promote common understandings in conducting naval and air operations in line with international law.

Meanwhile, America is seen as hypocritical and the legitimacy of its position is being challenged because it is the only major power not to have signed the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention. Many countries do not agree with the way the U.S. interprets the law of the sea. Several dozen have sought to regulate military activities in their EEZs. These zones encompass nearly 30 percent of the world’s oceans.

But it’s China that’s trying to extend its jurisdiction as far as possible out to sea. The aim is to create a security buffer, limit the operating areas of U.S. naval and air forces, erode ties between America and its regional allies and friends, and put China in a stronger position to enforce claims to control islands, seas and resources far beyond its internationally recognized borders.

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