In recent months, China has pressed its claims to the seas beside it with unusual aggression, resulting in a long series of tense maritime standoffs. It neighbors fear miscalculation and war. China’s expansion has long been expected. Is a new cold war possible?
The shore-hugging seas of this part of the world, from the southern tip of the Korean peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago, have always served as an open freeway for culture, trade, and ceaseless migration. In past times, historians of the region went so far as to call the long waterway that encompasses both the East China Sea and South China Sea the Mediterranean of East Asia. But more recently, it has begun to earn more-ominous comparisons to another part of Europe, a fragmented region that was the famous trigger for the First World War: the Balkans.
A mere 25 miles off the shores of six countries, sits the frontier of an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable struggle. Its origin lies in China’s intensifying efforts to remake the maritime borders of this region, just as surely as Russia is remaking Europe’s political map in places like Crimea and Ukraine – only here the scale is vastly larger, the players more numerous, and the complexity greater.
Moving with ever greater boldness, Beijing has begun pressing claims to ownership of more than 80% of the South China Sea, water enclosed by what it calls its “nine-dash line,” a relic of the country’s early-20th- century nationalist era, when it was first sketched to indicate China’s view of its traditional prerogatives. The line has no international standing and had gone largely unremarked upon until China recently revived it. It now figures in all Chinese maps. Since 2012, it has been embossed in new passports issued to the country’s citizens.
Also known as the cow’s tongue, for the way it dangles from China’s southern coast, the line encloses a region through which roughly 40% of the world’s trade and a great majority of China’s imported oil passes, via the Strait of Malacca, a region of vast maritime importance.
If China can impose its will in the South China Sea, at least five rival claimants – all much smaller, weaker Asian states – will be limited to a narrow band of the sea along their coastlines. China would gain greater security for its crucial supply lines of oil and other commodities; exclusive rights to rich fishing areas and potentially vast undersea oil deposits; a much larger buffer against what it regards as US naval intrusions; and, not least, the prestige and standing it has long sought, becoming in effect the Pacific’s hegemon, and positioning itself to press its decades-old demand that Taiwan come under its control. Arguable, it would achieve the greatest territorial expansion by any power since imperial Japan’s annexation of large swaths of Asia in the first half of the 20th century. China gradually seeks to push the US military out of the western Pacific. Any such conflict would of course be dangerous whenever it happened, because the US is likely to resist these efforts strenuously. But what’s surprising – and worrisome – is how the timeline for this conflict, or at least its beginning stage, has seemed to accelerate over roughly the past two years. Suddenly and aggressively, China has begun advancing its military interests throughout the region, catching its neighbors and the United States off guard.
Since mid-2013, China has seemed to almost indiscriminately pick fights all the way around its eastern perimeter. That July, a group of Chinese warships circumnavigated Japan for the first time, and Beijing seemed to be sending two messages: that it was ready to stand up to its historical rival, and also that China would no longer be contained within what it calls the First Island Chain, the long series of islands that stretches down China’s coast, preventing easy naval access to the open Pacific.
In November 20013, Beijing made a surprise announcement of an “air-defense identification zone,” claiming navigational control of the skies over most of the water that lies between China and Japan, including not only areas claimed by Japan but also areas claimed by South Korea, with which it has usually enjoyed smooth relations. The US said it would ignore China’s assertion, however it did advise commercial airlines to observe the new Chinese rules.
Days later, China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, a freshly refurbished ship purchased second-hand from Ukraine in 1998, embarked on its first voyage with a full naval strike group in tow, into the hotly contested South China Sea. In early December, before it reached the dispute zone near the Philippines and Vietnam, one of the accompanying vessels engaged in a dangerous showdown with the American Aegis cruiser Cowpens in international waters. The Chinese ship abruptly turned into the Cowpens’ path and stopped in front of the ship, forcing the Cowpens to make a radical maneuver to avoid a collision. The Chinese claimed the Cowpens had violated the Chinese convoy’s “inner defense layer,” a hither to unheard-of exclusion zone apparently covering more than 2,800 square miles. The US Navy took pains to emphasize that the American avoidance maneuver should not be seen as a precedent.
In January 2014, a different Chinese naval group patrolled the James Shoal, an area claimed by both Taiwan and Malaysia, where it held a highly publicized deck-top ceremony in which sailors trumpeted an “oath of determination” to safeguard China’s maritime interests.
In February, 3 Chinese warships patrolled the Indian ocean, passing for the first time through the narrow Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra, and eventually maneuvering, without advance notice, off the Australian territory of Christmas Island. China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, is displeased that this historical American ally agreed in 2011 to allow the US to begin rotating as many as 2,500 marines through a training base in northern Australia, as part of the US announced “pivot” to Asia, a shift of American military assets to the Pacific, and a reflection of the region’s increasing centrality to the global economy. China explained that America had interfered with China’s unification with Taiwan and Australia should not expect to be entitled to allow the US to threaten China without hurting itself.
The ensuing months have all maintained a similar rhythm, with Chinese provocations growing stronger. In early May, some 80 Chinese ships, including 7 navy vessels, accompanied a $1 billion deep-sea oil-exploration rig as it was towed just 120 nautical miles off the main coast of Vietnam and readied for operation. China claimed that the rig was being deployed within its own territorial seas, even though Vietnams’ coast is closer – and even though the location is well within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam, a boundary line accorded to all coastal countries as an exclusive economic zone. Jousting ensued, including Chinese ships’ use of water cannons to ward off their rivals, and the ramming of ships on both sides. In the end, faced with vastly superior Chinese strength Vietnam was essentially reduced to exasperated diplomatic protests. In mid-July, China announced that the rig had completed its mission and would move to China’s Hainan Island.
Throughout the yer, China has also employed less militaristic but no less brazen tactics to assert control in the Pacific – most notably by building artificial islands in the contested waters of the Spratly islands. On these new islands and on other remote outcroppings, China has constructed bases and dwellings to house Chinese soldiers. It seemingly hopes to use its presence on the islands to support and underscore its claims to the waters that surround them.
These willy-nilly provocations are not indiscriminate but a densely scripted theatrical production in several acts. The early phases will likely be played out mostly in the South China Sea, where the country enjoys a huge and growing power disparity compared with much smaller states – Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia. But the struggle will eventually come to more squarely include Japan and its perimeter.
China’s main frontline opponents in the South China Sea are Vietnam and the Philippines. Both fear that Beijing will make an example of at least one of them. Which country will they bully and humiliate as an object lesson to other neighbors that resistance is futile and decisive action from the US is unlikely to come?
Vietnam. Today, Vietnam is the only country in the region that seeks to impose serious limits on China’s maritime ambitions but does not have a defense agreement with the US, making it an attractive target. Though it is scarcely more than 1/30th of China’s size, Vietnam has a martial culture, as the US learned in the Vietnam War. Vietnam repelled a Chinese invasion of the country’s northern borderlands in 1979, leaving as many as 20,000 Chinese soldiers dead. But this has long since been censored out of China’s national consciousness. Chinese state media have spoken recently of the need to give Vietnam “a lesson it deserves,” or to make it pay “an unaffordable price.”
Although the two countries are nominal ideological allies, their relationship through the centuries has involved many waves of invasion and subjugation, deeply coloring the attitudes of each toward the other. “Invasion is in their blood and resistance is in our blood” sums up the countries two millennia of bitterly shared history. There is no illusion of prevailing in a symmetrical clash with China, but unconventional means to overcome bigger and more heavily armed adversaries, gives Vietnam an arrogance. Hanoi recently took delivery of two silent Russian-built, Kilo-class submarines – four more are on the way. Such an expensive purchase for a country with a per capita GDP of only about $1,900 underlies the country’s need to be able to sink Chinese ships in order to raise the cost of Chinese aggression to unacceptable levels.
Vietnam has to weigh its response to Chinese provocation with great care, given the two counties’ increasing economic integration. In 2012, in a tense moment with Manila, China suspended imports of bananas causing huge quantities to rot on the docks. As soon as tensions rose once the oil rig had been towed into Vietnamese waters, trade between the two countries declined sharply. To the Vietnamese, the oil-rig incident did not reach a threshold that warranted war. A Chinese bid to seize islands (as it did in 1974 and 1988) probably would. Protest in Vietnam warned the government if it failed to strike back after any new Chinese island grab.
China’s approach in the Pacific is viewed as a calibrated incrementalism, whereby a Chinese presence and de facto Chinese rights in disputed areas are built up gradually, in a series of provocations that are individually small enough to make forceful resistance politically difficult, but that collectively establish precedence and, over time, norms.
The tempo and tenor of China’s recent actions suggest that Beijing might be happy with a contest of strength against Hanoi, especially if Vietnam were perceived as the country that struck first. The oil-rig incident would legitimize Chinese claims if Vietnam did nothing, and would offer an opportunity to squash them in some limited battle or impose crippling sanctions if Hanoi lashed out. Military action by Vietnam may do nothing more than spring a Chinese trap.
Philippines. The other likely target, the Philippines stands out for its weakness. Palawan sits along the eastern edge of the nine-dash line and already feels besieged. Fishermen who enter waters freely traversed for centuries now find themselves in a disputed no-man’s land. Towards the west are many Chinese military vessels. Of the Philippines once-large fleet of C-130 transport planes, only 2-3 still function. For 20 years, the Philippines has badly neglected its military, which was never that strong to begin with.
China has busily begun changing the status quo in the disputed waters. On contested islands, it is building naval piers, landing strips, and even schools for the children of Chinese military personnel. In tandem, it has used surveillance ships and nominally private fishing boats to more or less permanently surround disputed shoals and shallows. The fishing boasts are outfitted with GPS and radios, and their captains receive subsidies for their role as an early warning system to Beijing about the movements of other countries vessels. China responds to most incursions into the disputed seas with its increasingly sophisticated and muscular coast guard, to avoid the appearance of militarization. The Philippines, like most states in the region, cannot match the capability of these vessels without using navy ships, which would look to the outside world like conflict escalation. For good measure, Chinese naval vessels often hover in the background, there to send a message and to be available in an emergency.
Manila’s to anchor its claims have been clever, but ultimately reflect desperation. In 1999, the country grounded a rusted-out ship just off the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys, 105 nautical miles off Palawan. The sailors aboard embody manila’s case for sovereignty over the shoal. Their survival depends on a game of cat and mouse with the Chinese navy as it seeks to interdict their resupply. The Chinese keep telling them to remove the boat and it’s obvious that the country is poorly prepared for a potential showdown. They have elected to play out the conflict with Beijing in the public arena whenever possible. If China resorts to force, the international community will likely rally in support of the embattled underdog. In pursuing a case against China under the UN convention of the Law of the Sea, the UN has no power to force China to comply with any ruling, but as the weaker nation, the Philippines is counting on international shame to force China to observe a convention it ratified in 1996. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
At Oyster Bay, on Palawan’s west-central coast, the Filipino government recently broke ground on a new naval base. In the past year, they have purchased two used frigates from Italy, a variety of attack helicopters and other aircraft, and a fleet of coast-guard patrol vessels. They are hoping to have at least minimal deterrent capability, with China in mind.
In April 2014, the Philippines signed a mutual-defense agreement with the US, designed to give China pause. The deterrent value looks uncertain. Gamesmanship, the goal to cut down the US to size in what China views as its own backyard, seems behind China’s new assertiveness. They might now view the Philippines as a more attractive target. Finding a way to humiliate the Philippines would allow Beijing to prove a larger point. The think the US has become a paper tiger.
From China’s perspective, the perfect scenario might be for the Filipinos to use their newly acquired hardware, prompting a limited military encounter that would enable China to make a new or stronger territorial claim to a few small atolls in the area – perhaps in hydrocarbon rich areas. The US might find it difficult to respond satisfactorily, given the stakes. The opportunity to reveal the US as an unreliable alliance partner across the Pacific would be alluring.
But the risks for China are considerable also. Any failure to prevail over the Philippines would be an embarrassment that could potentially destabilize the Communist Party. If Washington calls China’s bluffs, it might reveal China, instead, to be the paper tiger.
Japan. A few hundred miles to the north of the Philippines, China is in a showdown with Japan over a small group of barren islands and rocks (Senkakus in Japan), which were under Tokyo’s uncontested control from their annexation in 1895 to the end of WWII. No one lives there, but the stakes are much higher than further south. The long Japanese archipelago keeps China bottled up in coastal waters. Control of the Senkakus potentially, the Ryukuy Islands (to the SE) is a key for Beijing to gaining direct, unfettered access to the open ocean – and significantly, as a stepping stone toward taking over Taiwan, a fundamental aim for decades.
China did not contest Japan’s sovereignty over the Senakukus, which is calls the Disoyu Islands, until 1971, when the US returned the islands. Two years later, China began making its claims after a geophysical survey of the area concluded that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in the world.
In 1978, the question of ownership was deferred but resurfaced in 2013, when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese coast-guard vessel in nearby waters. Japan arrested the captain unleashing nationalist passions in China. Ever since, China has frequently sent coast-guard ships into the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters surrounding the Senkakus, in a blunt challenge to Japanese authority. In December 2012, three months after Japan nationalized some of the Senkakus (previously owned by a Japanese citizen), a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft entered the airspace above the islands, prompting Japan to send fighter jets from nearby Okinawa. A month later, a Chinese frigate locked its fire-control radar on the Japanese destroyer Yudachi. In June military aircraft of the two countries reportedly flew within as little as 100 feet of each other above the disputed waters, during perilous maneuvers for which each side blamed the other. A Chinese poll revealed that 64% of Chinese citizens felt that China should “strengthen its effective control over the territory”.
In December 2012, the nationalistic prime minister, Shinzo Abe was returned to power. He increased Japanese defense spending and promised to revise the constitution that bans the use of military force in disputes, in order to legally field a national army. He has inflamed Chinese passions by minimizing Japanese atrocities in WWII, such as the sexual enslavement of Chinese women by the Japanese army and he became the first sitting Japanese prime minister in years to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine where convicted Japanese war criminals are commemorated. This has made top-level diplomacy with China impossible.
Tokyo has created a military force modeled after the US Marines, built its own light aircraft carrier, the Izumo, which deploys only helicopters, and increased its highly advanced submarines from 16 to 22. They threatened to shoot down any Chinese drones violating their air space. They are establishing a base on an island at the southern end of the Ryukyu island chain.
Japan believes that sooner or later, China will try to take the Senkakus by force. It would give them a military platform. If hostilities broke out today, many analysts believe that Japan would prevail. With the best American weapons systems, and years of training alongside their American counterparts, they are more battle ready. For that reason, most feel it is unlikely that China would be interested in a major frontal clash anytime soon. Is the US prepared to fight China, and defend Japan, over an obscure territorial issue? Some bluffing contest could go wrong, resulting in dead soldiers. Many are convinced that China is trying to goad Japan – through persistent, carefully calibrated provocations – into overreaction, and will continue to do so.
If the US were to waver in its commitments to Japan, Beijing will have gone a long ways toward achieving its biggest long-standing objective: undermining the long-standing alliance between America and Japan. If American lost credibility, many nations might consider making accommodations with China. Washington would have multiple options, ranging from hostile engagement to intense support and logistical help.
Vietnam has forged a new alliance with India to bankroll Vietnam as a proxy in any conflict with China to train Vietnamese in submarine warfare and buy military equipment. The best hope is for the involved countries to act in concert, even if not in outright alliance, to constrain China to a mutually acceptable set of international rules. Japan and South Korea are contributing enthusiastically to a maritime defense buildup in both Vietnam and the Philippines. The more China sees a coordinated response to its military buildup and naval forays, the more likely it might be to turn towards diplomacy, and to stop seeking overwhelming superiority in the region.
For decades, China’s strategy has been hide your capabilities and bide your time. Since 2013, this approach has been cast aside. Some in the Chinese military establishment have increasingly touted the need for greater assertiveness. Xi Jinping, since taking office in 2012, has publicly celebrated weapons development and encouraged military preparedness. He frequently uses the theme of “the great resurgence of the Chinese nation.” As China’s economic and military means catch up to its ambitions, the world could be entering a long and dangerous period. It seems to be premature, rather than waiting a decade or two to achieve greater strength to take on America. There may be a sense that American energies abroad are flagging.
The Communist Party legitimacy has rested on the twin pillars of strong economic performance and nationalism. Social media have amplified the voice of populist hard-liners against compromise with their neighbors.
Meanwhile, China’s manufacturing sector has been shedding workers for several years now, as wages have risen and labor-saving technology has proliferated. The economy and employment have continued to grow quickly, but that growth has been fueled by an unprecedented run-up in corporate debt. Productivity growth is declining. The labor force is about to begin a sharp decline, along with a society that may grow old before it can grow truly rich, on a per capita basis. Few believe China can sustain the growth rates of the last few decades and many fear that it may have entered a “middle-income gap” – where once supercharged developing economies find it difficult to continue rising up the industrial value chain, where innovation and advanced services replace low-end manufacturing. Not a single Chinese company ranks among the Business Week/Interbrand Top 100 global brands.
If China can achieve greater transparency, more-stringent anticorruption measures, pollution control, and other non monetary lifestyle improvements for its people – its elites may see little advantage in confronting its neighbors.