China and the World

Not a sea of tranquillity

The Pentagon protests at China’s island-building in disputed waters

Still image from a United States Navy video purportedly shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands

An image of Chinese dredgers said to be active in the Spratly Islands

Last Friday Hong Kong’s feisty pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung (better known as ‘Long Hair’) was denied entry to Malaysia. Leung, who had flown to Kuala Lumpur to speak at a democracy forum, was stopped at the airport and then sent back to Hong Kong the same day.

Earlier last week a prominent Hong Kong student activist was also turned back at Malaysian passport control. The reason? The South China Morning Post reported comments from the local police chief that the Malaysians “did not want to jeopardise their ties with China”.

In their enthusiasm to avoid a diplomatic spat with Beijing, the Malaysian decisions point to a broader trend: year-by-year China’s economic and military clout in the Asian region is growing.

Financial benefits are on offer to many of China’s neighbours – loans, infrastructural programmes, and spending from all those Chinese tourists – but so too is the need to accommodate the political whims of this rising ‘great power’.

Indeed, geopolitical strategists agree that China’s expanding presence in the region is now disrupting the Pax Americana that has prevailed in Asia over the last five decades or so.

Emerging Sino-American tensions have repeatedly made headlines in the past fortnight too.

The point at issue: China’s reclaiming of land around disputed South China Sea reefs. China’s maritime neighbours, while irked, cannot compete with the scale or speed of the Chinese construction efforts. Their worry is that Beijing will pull off a fait accompli as a series of new manmade islands appear and thereby assert China’s sovereignty over disputed waters that it deems to be its own (based on its so-called ‘nine-dash’ map).

As the Financial Times notes of this acceleration in Chinese dredging: “Over the past seven months, according to one US official, China has created more acreage of dredged sand on formerly submerged coral reefs than all other claimants in the South China Sea in the past 60 years.”

Sources in Washington allege that 2,000 acres of land has been reclaimed in the last 18 months, which is 400 times more activity than any of the competing claimants in the South China Sea.

For this reason, American secretary of defence Ashton Carter is proposing a moratorium on all reclamation work in the region. However, the Chinese have shown little inclination to halt their activities. And at the Shangri-La defence summit in Singapore, concerns from the US military that new runways on the new islets could be used by Chinese fighter jets were also rebuffed by Admiral Sun Jianguo. Sun said the airstrips would be used for “international public services”, such as search and rescue and meteorological forecasting. The China Daily said the admiral also spoke “harshly” about US interference in Chinese affairs.

“Never expect us to surrender to poorly reasoned arguments, might and hegemony, and never expect us to accept the bitter consequences brought by sabotaging national interests in regard to sovereignty, security and development,” Sun said.

One of the Pentagon’s key concerns is that once the Chinese can land aircraft on the new runways Beijing will attempt to establish an Air Defence Indentification Zone (ADIZ) over the area – much as it tried to embargo the airspace around islands it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea (known as the Diaoyus to the Chinese and the Senkakus to the Japanese).

In both cases analysts say the purpose is to enshrine China’s de facto sovereignty and push the Americans out of waters it now considers to be within its sphere of influence.

It was to show its dissatisfaction with this prospect that Washington undertook a controversial flight last month. A military surveillance aircraft – which had invited a camera crew from CNN aboard – flew close to one of the reefs on which China is building an airstrip. It was told testily by the Chinese navy to “leave immediately to avoid misjudgement”, and China’s foreign ministry then lambasted the Americans for “provocative behaviour”.

The Global Times – a newspaper that likes to take a nationalistic line – was soon promising that war was “inevitable” if America keeps encroaching on China’s airspace and criticising the construction activities in the South China Sea.

But Defence Secretary Carter has not backed down, pledging instead that the US will continue with its “freedom of navigation activities” in the zone, including sailing ships and flying planes near the disputed islands. Carter reiterated that the Americans would “operate wherever international law allows”.

Thus far the US has kept its vessels 12 nautical miles from the reefs. The Economist says that’s a distance that would be the outer limit of China’s sovereign domain if the reefs were classed as actual islands (i.e. permanently above water).

“Now the Pentagon is considering whether to probe these lines,” the magazine suggests.

American officials claim that China has already installed two artillery vehicles on one of its artificial islands, while the Eurasia Review has reported that China has been trying to jam electronically the drones that the Americans have been flying over the reclamation areas.

Last week Beijing unveiled a White Paper that outlines its intent to build a “modern maritime military force” and to protect the country’s “maritime rights and interests”.

The international media has been taking note. “The US has good reason to push back more forcefully against China’s grab for power in the South China Sea, as Defence Secretary Carter did on a trip to Asia this week,” the New York Times warned in an editorial.

“Beijing has repeatedly ignored earlier warnings to moderate the aggressive behaviour that is unsettling its regional neighbours and further undermining its relations with the US.”

The Financial Times is also concerned. In an editorial entitled ‘Cooler heads are needed in the South China Sea’ it asked both sides to “ratchet down the tensions”, noting that “the two countries are on a slow but unmistakable collision course”.

Similarly, The Economist feared that a game of “chicken” might result in Beijing responding more forcefully if an American vessel gets too close to reefs that China claims as its own. Billionaire investor George Soros even fears the danger of triggering a world war. He may not be alone in fearing the consequences of an accidental escalation.

Admiral Dennis Blair, the former head of US Pacific Command and director of National Intelligence, has called for a more holistic strategy from Washington, telling the Wall Street Journal that the “whack-a-mole” response to China’s island-building programme is futile.

Blair says a coordinated diplomatic effort rather than a military response is required: “We shouldn’t be leading with aircraft carriers down there.”

But perhaps the stage is set for a strategic climbdown on both sides of the current divide. Senior Chinese officials will visit Washington later this month for the latest round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and President Xi Jinping will visit the US himself in September.

As The Diplomat magazine puts it, this could soothe some of tensions as the upcoming meetings may mean that “both sides do not want to ruin the US-China relationship, at least for the moment”.

Chinese state news agency Xinhua has also offered a more comforting assessment of the current mood between the two superpowers. Quoting extracts from the military White Paper issued by the Chinese authorities last Tuesday, the agency ventures that: “A world war is unlikely in the foreseeable future and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful.”

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