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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 7, 2012


China nudges up South China Sea tension
By Richard Javad Heydarian

MANILA - Earlier hopes that a leadership transition in China would help to ease tensions in the South China Sea have faded as Beijing carves out a more assertive position in the contested waters.

China's recent announcement that patrol vessels will beginning next year "intercept and board" any foreign vessels in areas over which it claims sovereignty in the South China Sea represents the gravest threat yet to freedom of navigation in an area crucial to global trade.

Adding to the tensions, Beijing also recently issued new passports for its citizens which bear an official Chinese map that incorporates all contested territories in the South China Sea and

 

beyond. The move has sparked new diplomatic flare-ups, including with rival claimants in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Moreover, Cambodia, a key Chinese ally, blocked the inclusion of the ongoing territorial disputes at the recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit's formal agenda, provoking uproar among certain member nations. The Philippines, for one, launched a formal protest against the omission.

A number of factors may explain China's renewed assertiveness over the territorial disputes. Intent on consolidating power, the new leadership in Beijing is clearly in no mood to risk any popular backlash by scaling down the increasingly hard-line stance on the issue it inherited from the Hu Jintao era.

Just as Israel has tested newly re-elected US President Barack Obama's commitment to the Middle East by launching a surprise offensive against Gaza, China's Xi Jinping may also be challenging America's so-called "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific by rattling key US regional allies. More than two years into the US's "pivot", there are still lingering questions as to its intent, feasibility and impact.

At the same time, states in the region such as Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have upped the ante on the disputes in different ways and across multiple occasions to not only test China's resolve and score domestic political points but also to encourage greater US strategic involvement.

Pivot test
The timing of China's recent provocations is instructive. During the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) held in Hanoi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly inserted America into the South China Sea disputes by stating that her country has a "national interest" in "freedom of navigation" in the Western Pacific, including presumably the waters surrounding the hotly contested Spratly and Paracel island chains.

Obama's decision to select Southeast Asia as his first official foreign destination of his send term signals - at least symbolically - his administration's commitment to reaffirming the US's role as an "anchor of stability and prosperity" in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The United States is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia's economic, security, and political order," said US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon about Obama's recent Asian tour, which included stops in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand "America's success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia."

While Washington has emphasized the economic dimensions of its "pivot" policy, witnessed in its push for a pan-regional free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Project (TPP), it has simultaneously equivocated on its more meaningful military aspect.

As a recent study by David Berteau and Michael Green of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) put it, "[The Department of Defense] has not adequately articulated the strategy behind its force posture planning, nor aligned the strategy with resources in a way that reflects current budget realities."

The US has announced it plans to commit a few thousand additional troops and re-direct around 10% of its naval assets to the region over the next decade. Assuming the Obama administration is sincere about its plans, there are two apparent reasons for such strategic equivocation:
  • A conscious effort to not antagonize China and empower moderates at the expense of hawks within the US's military-security establishment;
  • Severe fiscal uncertainties which could undercut America's long-term operational commitments and capabilities.

    In recent months, both US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Clinton have repeatedly re-assured China that the "pivot" policy is not aimed at containing its rise. To underscore those claims, the US Navy recently announced its openness to China's participation in its 2014 "Rim of the Pacific Exercise". While rapidly developing its 'anti-access' (A2/AD) and naval capabilities, China seems unconvinced by the US's conciliatory rhetoric or deterred by its "pivot".

    "US Pacific Command (PACOM) faces a fundamental budget challenge: even with an administration pledge to hold US capabilities steady in Asia while cutting force structure elsewhere, US$487 billion in planned cuts means hollowing out other commands' assets in ways that will ultimately force cannibalizing of PACOM assets when crises hit the Middle East or elsewhere," Green wrote in his CSIS report.

    US Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said that an additional US$500 billion in defense budget cuts under the "sequestration" provision of the congress-approved budget bill would be "chaotic, wasteful and damaging, not just to defense but to every other function of government".

    Emboldened hawks
    Some strategic analysts believe that uncertainties over the US's ability to finance its "pivot" policy have emboldened more hawkish elements in China's new leadership, including those intent on pushing the limits of the territorial disputes as a nationalistic way to consolidate domestic power and legitimacy.

    With the recent provocations and ASEAN's inability to adopt even provisional guidelines for a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea, some strategic analysts now wonder whether the territorial disputes and their potential to inhibit free navigation will lead to an armed US versus China confrontation in the year ahead.

    "All concerned parties should avoid any kind of provocative or unilateral actions that can raise tensions or undermine the prospect for a negotiated solution," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in response to China's recent "intercept and board" announcement.

    "As a Pacific power we have a national interest in maritime freedoms and unimpeded economic development and commerce and the rule of law," said Pentagon spokesman George Little. "Our alliances, partnerships and enduring presence in the Asia-Pacific region all serve to support those goals."

    ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, meanwhile, warned that China's plan to stop and board foreign vessels in the area increased "a level of concern and a level of great anxiety among all parties, particularly parties that would need the access, the passage and the freedom to go through."

    Despite the warnings and alarms, it's still not clear China would be willing to risk a full-blown confrontation in the area. The "intercept and board" decision, first announced by Hainan Island officials, has yet to be fully embraced by China's top leadership. Not only has China's Foreign Ministry expressed its commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it has also equivocated on what constitutes "illegal entry" or a violation of China's sovereignty by foreign vessels.

    Top Hainan officials such as Wu Shicun, director general of the foreign affairs office of Hainan province, has tried to comfort baffled neighbors by saying that the new regulations/restrictions will only apply to vessels engaged in illegal activities (also not defined clearly) within China's 12 nautical mile zone, or territorial waters.

    China's recent actions also come in response to rising assertiveness by US regional allies, seen in Japan's recent attempt to purchase the contested Senkak/Diaoyu islands, the Philippines' push for more US strategic involvement, and Vietnam's stepped up energy exploration and offshore-drilling projects in disputed territories. But as both sides ramp up their rhetoric and threats, the potential for a clash in the South China Sea continues to grow.

    Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst focusing on Iran and international security. He is the author of the upcoming book The Economics of the Arab Spring: How Globalization Failed the Arab World, Zed Books, 2013. He can be reached at jrheydarian@gmail.com

    (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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