As China’s power becomes ever more obvious, especially to neighbors in Asia, Chinese leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile soothing words with assertive actions.

The recent attempt by China’s defense minister to assure Southeast Asian countries and other nations that see the South China Sea as a security and economic lifeline shows how Beijing’s credibility is on the line.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, General Liang Guanglie recited the mantra intoned by top Chinese officials from President Hu Jintao down: that China’s security policy is “purely defensive in nature”; that Beijing will “never seek hegemony or military expansion”; and that China was “committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

In his speech to an audience of international defense specialists, General Liang did not mention China’s long-standing claim to sovereignty over all the main island groups in the South China Sea and to jurisdiction over surrounding waters, fisheries and seabed resources, including oil and natural gas.

China’s claim overlaps those of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. It forms a vast U-shape covering about 80 percent of the 3.35-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, stretching from Singapore in the south to Taiwan in the north.

From an official Chinese perspective, there is no contradiction between pledges and policy. Since the South China Sea is an “indisputable” part of China’s national unity and territorial integrity, protecting it by all means, including the use or threat of force, can only be “defensive.”

Shortly after General Liang spoke, the defense ministers of Vietnam and the Philippines challenged China’s commitments to a peaceful solution over who should control the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

Vietnam’s General Phung Quang Thanh warned that there must be no repetition of a May 26 incident in which a Chinese ship cut cables towed by an oil exploration vessel in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, about 220 km from the coast and over 630 km from Hainan Island, the nearest uncontested Chinese territory in the South China Sea.

Yet, on June 9, Hanoi complained that another of its petroleum survey vessels had been deliberately obstructed by a Chinese fishing boat in Vietnam’s EEZ, over 1,000 km from Hainan.

In Manila, China’s ambassador Liu Jianchao warned other South China Sea claimants to stop the search for oil and gas in waters claimed by Beijing without its permission.

If a Philippine claim is correct that Chinese vessels unloaded construction materials on unoccupied Amy Douglas reef in the Spratlys between March 21 and 24, while General Liang was in Manila for talks to defuse tensions, it would a serious breach of the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea signed by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China in 2002. China refuses to make the code legally binding.

Vietnam, the biggest claimant in the South China Sea after China and Taiwan (which maintain similar claims), is also assertive and intransigent in defending its interests. So, too, are the smaller and weaker claimants, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

However, all the Southeast Asian claimants and Taiwan are dwarfed in economic and military power by China. And the gap is getting steadily wider.

Nonetheless, as computer hackers from Vietnam and China campaigned against each other, targeting hundreds of websites, including government ones, amid rising anger over the territorial dispute, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung entered the fray publicly for the first time June 9.

He said that Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands and over the widely-scattered Spratlys — some of which are garrisoned by China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as Vietnam — was incontestable and would be defended by the armed forces.

Vietnam and the Philippines are accelerating petroleum exploration in waters disputed with China. Beijing is intensifying efforts to deter them.

Chinese officials say that by mid-2010, 180 oil and gas fields and over 200 prospective petroleum reservoirs had been found in the South China Sea. They say that losses for China are equivalent to 20 million tons of oil annually, about 40 percent of the country’s total offshore production.

The struggle for control of the South China Sea is not only about national sovereignty and valuable resources. There is a strategic dimension as well. Writing in the China Daily on June 8, Gong Jianhua, a politics professor at the Guangdong Ocean University, explained why.

“With only a small number of disputed islands under its actual control, China lacks channels that connect the sea to the (Pacific) ocean,” he wrote. “To become an influential power, China has to transform from a ‘continental power’ to a ‘maritime power.’ And the South China Sea dispute is a real test for it to achieve that goal.”

Chinese policy, backed by rapid military modernization and an expanding fleet of naval and other patrol ships, is becoming suspiciously like a Monroe Doctrine for maritime Asia.

The original Monroe Doctrine was an 1823 policy statement by the United States forbidding European empires from reasserting control in the Western Hemisphere. Over time, as U.S. power grew, Washington built a navy strong enough to enforce the doctrine.

China may be trying to do the same in the South China Sea.

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

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.