The fallout this week over the alleged North Korean torpedoing of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, reminds us that confrontations at sea are not necessarily a thing of the past.
In the Korean case, China is being urged to do more to intervene, primarily by taking a tougher line with Pyongyang’s Kim Jong-il. But down south in the more tropical climes of the South China Sea, its role is less as peacemaker and more as protagonist in a series of maritime disputes with neighbours.
China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim rival ownership of an assortment of rocks, reefs and atolls in the area. Few but the most committed cartographer could find places like the Spratly Islands or the Paracels on the nautical map. But they generate a disproportionate share of diplomatic angst, with fishermen intermittently detained by one side or the other, and warnings flying back and forth on ‘illegal’ construction or flag-raisings.
In April there was a diplomatic spat further out into the Pacific too, when a flotilla of Chinese vessels sailed past Okinawa into a stretch of ocean that Japan claims as an exclusive economic zone. A Japanese ship sent to observe them led to diplomatic protests.
The Chinese were left rather annoyed by the whole experience. “How would the Japanese people feel if the Japanese left port and were then annoyingly chased by Chinese destroyers,” asked Cheng Yonghua, China’s ambassador to Japan.
Tensions mounted further this month when that very thing happened: one of Tokyo’s surveying ships was chased out of a disputed area by a Chinese military vessel. The South China Morning Post reported that the incident caused “uproar” in Japan, but a retired PLA general said Japan and other Asian nations had “better get used to the presence of the PLA navy” in the region’s waters. The evidently nettled general, Xu Guangyu remarked: “We kept silent and tolerant over territory disputes with our neighbours in the past because our navy was incapable of defending our economic zones, but now the navy is able to carry out its task.”
Not surprisingly, Xinhua was also rankled by the recent disputes, and chose to remind readers that most of the invasions suffered by the Chinese nation had “come from the sea”. That seems to stretch the historical truth. As even schoolboy historians know, a Great Wall was built to prevent incursions from the Mongol horsemen to the north and west. China’s two most recent wars – against the Vietnamese and the Indians – were also fought across land borders.
Of course, there was the great indignity of European gunboats dominating Chinese ports – as well as the river trade – during the Unequal Treaties period of the 19th century. That still bothers most Chinese.
But China seems to have focused more on protecting its territorial borders than its sea-lanes in the past, and showed few signs of particular naval pedigree. Admittedly, Admiral Zheng He’s great voyages of the early 15th century stand out as an exception to the rule. But the most fulsome praise that the China Daily could muster up for the navy’s 60th anniversary celebrations last year was to praise a series of “perfectly accomplished” scientific experiments.
However, Beijing now wants the attributes of superpower status – including a presence at sea. It insists that this is a case of catching up with the times, and not a belligerent build up. In the lead up to a naval review off the coast of Qingdao last year (see WiC13), the point was made that China was still the only permanent member of the UN Security Council without an aircraft carrier, for example.
And today the diplomats talk about wanting a sea force commensurate with China’s newfound economic strength, to protect busier sea-lanes and safeguard an expanding merchant fleet. Retired General Xu agreed, saying the maturing of the Chinese navy was driven by the growing need to defend the nation’s oil investments in Africa and its energy transport route from the Middle East.
Perhaps so, although the admirals do seem to be looking at more distant horizons than in the past, with a new “Far Sea Defence” doctrine that plans to extend much further out from Chinese shores. The Indians, for instance, are worried that the China is building a deepwater port in Sri Lanka to extend its naval reach into the region.
Foreign analysts say too that the navy is strengthening in key areas, like nuclear submarines and long-range ballistic missiles, in hope of eroding a little of the US Seventh Fleet’s supremacy in the eastern Pacific. Memories of the 1995 Taiwan Strait Crisis, in which Bill Clinton sent in the USS Nimitz in response to Chinese exercises, are said to linger.
Still, serious talk of measuring up to the Americans is premature. The figures show a huge gulf in total military spending ($685 billion for the Americans this year, versus $78 billion for the Chinese). The Chinese number is probably understated but it is still a pretty telling differential.
It shows up in naval comparisons too. The Chinese now have almost as many vessels as the Americans. But many were purchased from the Russians and are said to be technologically inferior. Particularly, the navy lacks long-distance support ships, as well as the aircraft carriers necessary to gain air-control at sea. And although they now set sail more frequently than before, China’s sailors trail in skill and experience. More exercises further out into the Pacific, as well as new anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa, will help close some of that gap. But this is a long voyage ahead, for a navy that has only recently begun to steer towards deeper waters.
As to those run-ins with Japan; there is an historical edge to some of the current bluster. The Japanese still recall that one Chinese emperor, Khubilai Khan, tried to launch an invading armada against their country well over 700 years ago. Thousands of ships carrying 140,000 troops formed one of the biggest invasion forces ever. They were scattered by the legendary storm of 1281, known in Japan as the ‘divine wind’ or kamikaze.
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