A sea of contention
Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea raises the hackles of its neighbours
Ravi S Buddhavarapu, Senior Journalist
Show of strength Chinese battleships conducting war manoeuvres in the South China Sea
SOMETIMES, THINGS are exactly what they seem, even in China, where political intent is usually hidden behind a veil of implacability. Two weeks after he became the party chief on 15 November, president-in-waiting Xi Jinping declared that qiangguo meng, or China’s “superpower dream”, was within grasp — for the first time in China’s history. Ominously, even the first faint stirrings of this dream are whipping up a huge storm in the South China Sea.
A fastidiously tie-less Jinping was speaking extempore at an exhibition of Chinese history at the National Museum in Beijing, flanked by all six members of his new team. “[Today] We are closer to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and are more confident than any time in history of the ability to achieve the goal,” he declared.
At roughly the same time, the world press in Beijing was slowly waking up to the next chapter of the South China Sea story, which has worried, infuriated and divided China’s neighbours in Southeast Asia and Japan — the timing seemed calculated to catch the US at a langourous moment, just days after President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Two days earlier, the legislature of China’s Hainan province, on the coast of the South China Sea, passed a law granting its police the power to “board, seize and expel all foreign ships” from the waters from 1 January 2013. Since China claims dominion over practically all of the South China Sea — a plainly ridiculous claim — its enforcement would theoretically block vital shipping lanes and bring trade to a halt. Roughly half of India’s trade passes through here.
Directly affected are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and others like Singapore, whose economy depends on accessibility to the world. Export paths from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan pass through these waters on their way to the Indian Ocean. Half the world’s oil cargo from the Middle East transits in the opposite direction. Even Brunei, which is very far afield, is affected because China claims the waters that lap its shores.
But China’s size puts many of the affected countries at a disadvantage. Since July, when China made it known that it would station a military garrison on a disputed island in the South China Sea that it calls Sansha, the Philippines and Vietnam have even had brief naval face-offs with Chinese patrols.
Another irritant for the Southeast Asian nations and India was the issue of a new Chinese passport, which incorporated maps showing disputed areas as part of China. They hit back by issuing visas on separate documents. India called the passports “unacceptable”.
So far, the Philippines, a close US ally, has pushed back the hardest. “If someone entered your yard and told you he owned it, would you agree?” Philippine President Benigno Aquino asked in his televised address to the nation recently. He earlier signed an order renaming part of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea.
A regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations, ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), largely a cohesive body till now, is divided on what to do other than turn the world’s attention to the region. The body’s secretary-general warned in an interview to a London newspaper that the South China Sea dispute could become as intractable as the Palestinian problem. China, meanwhile, wants to talk to each nation separately, to more easily intimidate them.
China wants to hold talks with each nation separately to intimidate them more easily
A Vietnamese minister best reflected the weakness of the Southest Asian nations forced into standoffs with China. “Economic force should not be applied in… settlement of territorial disputes,” Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh said. Vietnam’s roaring economy is slowing down. It is set to grow at its slowest pace in 13 years, in 2012. China was Vietnam’s largest economic partner in 2011, with bilateral trade totaling $36 billion, according to Vietnamese government figures.
Japan, meanwhile, is already paying a commercial price for the dispute with China over a group of islets each calls by different names. After Japan bought the Senkaku islands (Daiyu in China) in September to keep them from falling into private hands, Japanese products are facing a boycott in China. Japanese car companies have cut profit forecasts and reported sales declines of upto 60 percent. The Japanese embassy and Chinese arms of several Japanese businesses have been attacked.
But the world’s third largest economy is certainly no pushover, being the staunchest US ally in the region. Though Washington is embroiled in tough fiscal negotiations to cut its own deficit, Japan has enough friends among US lawmakers to ensure support even by a government reluctant to intervene abroad.
Last week, the US Senate passed a bill that, if signed into law, will bind the US to come to Japan’s aid in case of conflict over the disputed islands. The bill proclaimed that any armed attack “in the territories under the administration of Japan” would be met under the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
China was quick to hit back. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters early this week that it was cause for “serious concern” and expressed “firm opposition” to the Senate’s amendment to the National Defense Authorisation Act. A commentary by Xinhua, the official news agency, warned that the “shortterm” move would harm US interests and “backfire”.
Though the US has officially not taken a stand on the ownership of the islands, a key US official on a recent visit warned Beijing not to confuse that with neutrality. The Senate bill also warns that “unilateral actions of a third party” would not affect its position.
In Japan, policy over the festering dispute has steadily hardened, bolstered by public opinion. China’s attempts to project power in the region are changing security thinking in the now-pacifist country. Japan, long resisting calls from the US to become a regional power, may now be persuaded to play a role. Fear of China is also prompting several Southeast Asian nations to soften their bitterness against Japanese treatment in the last century.
Interestingly, the other big party to the dispute — with the naval muscle as well as the strategic rationale to stand up to China — is India. It has territorial disputes with China and has fought a brief border war with it in 1962. Although India has no jurisdiction in the South China Sea itself, it has oil interests in the region and fairly deep ties with Southeast Asian nations, cultivated as part of the “Look East” policy set in place by former prime minister Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s.
Indian state-owned oil company ONGC has been prospecting for oil off Vietnam in recent years. China has provocatively called for bids for roughly the same area ONGC is working in. The Indian company re-signed the contract with Vietnam this year despite pressure from Beijing not to do so.
It seemed a deliberate move, with India’s naval chief telling reporters that the Indian navy was ready to support ONGC and had carried out exercises in preparation. “...When the country’s interests are involved, we will be required to go there (South China Sea) and we are prepared for that. Are we holding exercises...? The short answer is ‘yes’”, he said. Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi said that China’s growing maritime strength was a “major, major cause for concern.”
Though there is talk of a strategic alliance between the US and India to contain China’s influence in the region, it is true that India, which has to protect its most important trade route, has been a player here long before Obama’s pivot to the Pacific. Most nations in the region also seem to trust India’s sobriety.
But this is no idle display of power: South China Sea is a theatre in the contest for resources between the world’s fastest growing economies. Asia today consumes a third of the world’s oil, marginally more than North America. China is already the world’s largest energy consumer, with a 19 percent share in 2010 compared with the US’s 18 percent, according to industry estimates. India’s share is much smaller, at 5 percent. Since neither India nor China is a big oil producer, the stakes are high.
Jinping, who will become China’s President March next year, will seek to realise his own vision of “superpower dream” over the next ten years, the first “princeling” President to rule in the 21st century. Whether this has a place for other nations is yet to be seen.
There are some early indications: The last “princeling” President was Jiang Zemin, who fired missiles into the Taiwan Straits in 1996 to cow Taiwan into giving up talk of independence and provoked a confrontation with US president George W Bush over a spy plane in Chinese airspace in 2001.
Jinping is a protégé of Zemin, who is still very powerful in Chinese politics. He surprised observers at the recent party congress, packing the top policy making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, with allies. Sometimes, things are exactly as they seem. Even in China.