Small wars loom large on China's
horizon By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Broad hints have been coming out
of China that the country might start small-scale
military strikes over disputed waters that are
believed to hold rich energy reserves. The
consequences of such endeavors would be tolerable
to Beijing, international experts say.
Bitter territorial disputes China has with
neighbors in the East and South China Seas have
long grabbed media headlines. Virtually all
countries in the region are involved in spats with
China, from South Korea and Japan to the
Philippines and Vietnam. In March alone, Beijing
had verbal clashes with Seoul over a submerged
rock; with Manila over the Philippines' plan to
build a ferry pier; and with Hanoi over China's
biggest offshore oil explorer's moves to develop
oil and gas fields.
But it wasn't only
words: Vietnamese fishing boats were also
seized by China and
their crews detained. What all the disputed zones,
islands and rocks have in common is that they
actually are much nearer to the shores of the
rival claimants than to China's.
strategists speak of the "Malacca Dilemma", they
mean that Beijing's sea lines of communications
are highly vulnerable. In times of conflict
between the US and China, the supply of crude and
iron ore needed to keep the Chinese economy alive
and kicking could be relatively easily cut off in
the straits that connect the Indian Ocean with the
As such, a move would force the
Chinese leadership rather quickly to the
negotiation tables on the enemy's terms - and as
it becomes clearer that the western Pacific holds
vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas -
Beijing naturally sees control over the areas as a
way out of its precarious situation. (According to
Chinese estimates, oil and gas reserves in the
western Pacific could meet Chinese demand for more
than 60 years.)
With official defense
spending to top US$100 billion in 2012, and the
actual amount estimated to be much higher, China's
People's Liberation Army (PLA) seems on course
towards building the strength needed to ensure all
goes smoothly in China's quest for energy
New ballistic anti-ship missiles
will make Washington think twice about ordering US
forces into the region to come to their allies'
rescue, as will a growing arsenal of land-based
tactical aircraft and anti-ship cruise missiles,
not to mention a fleet heavy on missile-firing
warships and submarines. Making access to this
part of the world even dicier for US forces,
China's ongoing military modernization has also
seen an easing of past detection, tracking and
targeting problems for Chinese gunners.
Beijing is confident that Washington would not
want to intervene, rival armed forces in the
region could be taken on with J-15 fighters to be
stationed on China's first aircraft carrier likely
to be commissioned in August, a rapidly increasing
number of naval destroyers, as well as brand-new
amphibious landing ships and helicopter-carriers
that can carry thousands of marines quickly to
That the political will
exists for such operations has been signaled more
than once. In commentaries run in China's state
media, most notably in the Global Times, the
concept of "small-scale wars" has increasingly
been propagated since 2011. In early March,
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized that the PLA
needed to be better prepared to fight "local
Experts interviewed by Asia Times
Online agreed that China would likely meet future
objectives with limited military strikes.
According to Steve Tsang, director of the
University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute,
much will depend on what the small war is about,
how it is conducted and against which country.
Tsang believes the South Koreans won't be the
target despite a recent war of words that erupted
after the chief of China's State Oceanic
Administration claimed that Leodo Reef, a
submerged rock off South Korea's resort island of
Jeju, is almost certainly part of China's
"jurisdictional waters". Beijing refers to the
rock as Suyan Reef.
"China starting even a
limited military operation against South Korea
would be too serious to be tolerated by anyone,"
Tsang said. "The US would have to take a strong
position and immediate action at the United
Nations Security Council to impose a ceasefire,"
However, a minor military
confrontation against Vietnam or the Philippines
over the disputed atolls in the South China Sea
was a very different matter, Tsang argued.
"Although China couldn't take an easy victory
against Vietnam for granted, and such wars will be
gravely disturbing in Southeast Asia and the rest
of East Asia, they will be manageable. If the
confrontation would be short and limited, the
immediate impact wouldn't be very significant."
Tsang warned, however, that a Chinese
attack on Vietnam or the Philippines would
strengthen the willingness of countries in
Southeast Asia cooperate with the United States.
"But fundamentally there is not much those
countries can do to counter an assertive China."
Tsang then took on the notion that the
existing mutual defense treaty between the
Philippines and the US leaves the Southeast Asian
country "immune" to a brief Chinese attack.
"You need to check the terms of the
treaty. The US government needs to consider [a
military attack against the Philippines] as a
serious security matter for which it needs to
respond, for which time is required to deliberate
an appropriate response," Tsang said. "Nothing
will happen if the incident is over before the
matter reaches congress for a serious debate."
James Holmes, an associate professor of
strategy at the US Naval War College, says Beijing
would likely get away with it if the PLA were to
attack the Philippines or Vietnam.
"Beijing would keep any small war as small
and out-of-sight as possible. The superiority of
its fleet vis-a-vis Southeast Asian militaries,
and the advent of new shore-based weaponry like
the anti-ship ballistic missile, give China a
strong 'recessed deterrent' in times of conflict,"
He explained that China could
hold its major combat platforms in reserve while
seeking its goals with relatively innocuous,
lightly armed vessels from its maritime security
services, which are its equivalents to a coast
"Southeast Asian navies might
challenge these ships, but they would do so in
full knowledge that People's Liberation Army could
deploy vastly superior sea power should they try
it," Holmes said. Economists also don't see
too many obstacles for a small energy war against
one China's Southeast Asian neighbors.
"Stock markets would overreact around the
world in the short term - say a few days," said
Ronald A Edwards, an expert on China's political
economy at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
"But there would be little if any effect
in terms of affecting this year's inflation,
employment or output of any country other than the
one attacked by China."
on a disturbing note. He argued that the outcome
of the nine-day-long Russian-Georgian war in 2008,
in which Russia used overwhelming force to push
Georgia out of South Ossetia, earning Western
condemnation, could be taken as an indicator on
whether China's economy would pay dearly for the
PLA's military adventures.
Russian war with Georgia comes to mind as a very
good example for comparison," Edwards said. "While
the news coverage of this was headlines everywhere
for a couple weeks, there were no major economic
effects in countries other than Georgia in August
of 2008 or thereafter."
Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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