Asia’s Maritime Confidence Crisis

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To the casual observer, recent security tensions in Asian waters might seem a storm in a Chinese teacup. The spectacle of opposing vessels – often motley flotillas of civilian patrol boats, fishing trawlers and survey ships – jostling near contested reefs, rocks and islets in the South and East China seas is the kind of activity that was likened back in Cold War days to a game of ‘nautical chicken’. Surely, in an age of economic interdependence and nuclear weapons, this petty posturing wouldn’t lead to great-power war?

Yet such wishful thinking ignores the real dangers of Asia’s China-centric maritime incidents. In the absence of effective mechanisms for crisis-management and confidence-building, these events are increasing in frequency and intensity. The harassment by Chinese civilian vessels of the USNS Impeccable in 2009 presaged a serious set of encounters in 2010, including North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan and a diplomatic crisis between China and Japan over the ramming of a Japanese customs vessel near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Though major power tensions have eased somewhat in 2011, encounters have continued. Chinese helicopters have continued to ‘buzz’ Japanese naval units, even in the sensitive period following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. In March, a Philippine survey ship was shadowed and harassed by Chinese patrol boats, eliciting formal diplomatic protests from Manila. More recently, in May and June, Chinese patrol boats have allegedly severed seismic cables aboard Vietnamese vessels operating near disputed territories in the South China Sea. Washington has weighed in, particularly with signals of reassurance to its ally Manila – prompting Chinese warnings about fanning flames and getting burned.

At the weekend, Sino-US and Sino-Vietnamese talks seem to have put a lid on the simmering tensions. And the chance that such incidents will lead to major military clashes shouldn’t be overstated. But each encounter involves risks, however small, of miscalculation and casualties. As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict. An accumulation of incidents could also play into a wider deterioration of relations among major powers, with dangerous implications for regional peace and stability.

The Mystery of Motives

Due in large part to the secrecy that shrouds Chinese defence policy, analysts and policymakers seeking to understand Chinese-initiated maritime incidents face the critical problem of trying to work out why each event has happened. Chinese maritime harassment, of course, may be carried out for a number of direct purposes: to intimidate, test resolve and reactions, assert territorial boundaries, collect photographic intelligence, or disrupt the activities of the target vessel, be they intelligence collection, seabed exploration or military exercises.

But is it politically motivated, instigated at the highest echelons of political leadership in Beijing? Does it come from senior levels within the People’s Liberation Army, acting without civilian sanction or direction? Does it reflect positioning for influence in PLA doctrinal debates, or perhaps contests for career advancement? Is it essentially a decision by a local PLA unit commander, or indeed the spontaneous action of a reckless naval officer or pilot? Are other agencies, such as maritime auxiliaries, playing their own assertive games? Or is there a large measure of miscommunication or simple accident at work? Almost any answer carries disturbing implications about China’s ability to control the risks along its perilous maritime edge.

Comments
71
Jack
August 17, 2012 at 23:29

@a_canadian_observer:  Would you stop blaming any opposing opinion? You have no rights to "straighten out" anyone. You blame the CCP change their history, but at least Chinese history could be compare with mainland China and Taiwan version in order to see the real things. Look back to your own history, it is a TRUE JOKE by missing a large part of killing millions of natives in America, Africa and many people in every corner in the world. 

Jack
August 17, 2012 at 23:19

@warmonger: You miss something to mention. Every time the Vietnam and China had war in history, the situation was either the Vietnamese launched the invasion towards China first and caused the counter-attack, or the Vietnamese former king asked the Chinese army to protect him. (Mongol's army could not be counted as Chinese invasion, because China was also invaded by the Mongolian's army)

Jack
August 17, 2012 at 23:12

@Guest: You said Chinese beat the Vietnamese fishermen, but did your western media told you that the many Chinese fishermen have been killed and arrested by the Vietnamese and Philippine navy (in South China Sea)? 

Bonnie
May 6, 2012 at 13:53

world war two was just as bad as vietnam, the media just didn’t make it known. hudnerds of thousands of people died in Germany in firebombings, that served no purpose other than to KILL. All wars, waged by any country, are all like this.

guest
July 14, 2011 at 22:21

NB: On July 5th, even after a Vietnamese diplomat is in Beijing, armed PLA soldiers are still beating Vietnamese fishermen. Story in Yahoo News July 14th. Look it up.

Either the PLA had the OK from Beijing to do this – or Beijing can’t keep a leash on the PLA. Take your pick. As the authors pointed out, either way it’s a big problem for the world.

**
The authors wrote:

“…is it politically motivated, instigated at the highest echelons of political leadership in Beijing? Does it come from senior levels within the People’s Liberation Army, acting without civilian sanction or direction? Does it reflect positioning for influence in PLA doctrinal debates, or perhaps contests for career advancement? Is it essentially a decision by a local PLA unit commander, or indeed the spontaneous action of a reckless naval officer or pilot? Are other agencies, such as maritime auxiliaries, playing their own assertive games? Or is there a large measure of miscommunication or simple accident at work? Almost any answer carries disturbing implications about China’s ability to control the risks along its perilous maritime edge.”

davida
July 13, 2011 at 15:02

i respectfully disagree with u branding china as a big bully. If u are refering to those love-and-hate affairs china had with neighbours before, then first of all, let me remind u that its in the past, and if we all have to rake up old ashes and open up some old wounds, pl educate me about which nation doesnt have some dark past locked up in a vault deep down in a basement. I dont know where u r from but i am damn sure that u will be abhored by ur motherland’ s immoral conduct and unsavory past in an otherwise “glorious” history if u care to spend a couple of hours doing research. I dont intend to patronise u with hysterical rambling like some other people in this blog, but i do wanna share this with u that its no good for someone to be overly obssessed with glitzy and glamor part of his own history, its absolutly wrong to use other’s dark past to justify his own questionable behavior.

But if u are refering to the assertiveness of china’s diplomacy with regard to SCS dispute, and if u r neutral, u would agree that all parties involved are to be blamed for pushing the tension to the boiling point, and i dont understand why almost all international media, especially those in usa and japan lands it squarely on china’s shoulder. If chinese action is not justified, i wonder why they couldnt just lable it, instead of assertivenss, aggressiveness, that way less confused world audience would be more sympthetic towards poor viets and philies whose butts have been kicked repeatedly and relentlessly throughout their history till now with no end in sight.( not all by chinese though)

Of course, its in no one’s interest to start a war over it, but more often than u think is occurence of an arm conflict thats triggered by those war-mongering politicians both domestic and abroad. Then a rational person might ask who would benifit from the devastations wreaked, certainly not chinese, vietnamese or philipinos people. And who is taking a moral high ground while tacitly encouraging asean nations to take a tougher stance against chinese than u would be otherwise?

So there is no doubt why vietnam is willing to lay their butt bare to show all cards they got with live-fire drill and decree of mandatory conscription by their president. In view of that either sheer desperation or show of force and will with tacit backing of someone who is not concerned in anyway in this dispute, i have to agree with chinese assessment that vietnam is playing with fire and risk being burned.

Warmonger
July 3, 2011 at 01:23

As long as China still have ambitious of CONQUERE, INVADE Vietnam, there won’t be the true friendship between two nation as your smooth say. As Vietnam motto is “Nothing more valueable than independacy, freedom and happy”. So if you try to invade our mother land we will definitely fight back event if it cost of our life.
We are brave but not foolish thought. It is very true that China is much stronger than Vietnam, so Vietnam alway try hard to maintance peace. But it no mean because you stronger you can take what ever you want. It’s not ages of pirates. And the anccient say: there alway have stronger one outside the world.
It look like this time we really need the stronger one to judge then.

a_canbadian_observer
July 2, 2011 at 04:31

@Frank: China belongs to Japan, Britain, France, Mongolia, etc…

a_canadian_observer
July 2, 2011 at 04:05

@Frank: You poor soul. Such citizen of such nig country, yet still have inferior complex. Sad!

a_canadian_observer
July 2, 2011 at 04:03

@Frank: What history? The chinese version? That’s a joke. It’s full of fabricated materials. Try to do some real research, then you may earn some respect.

Charles_123
July 2, 2011 at 03:22

All this claim that China violate vietnam territory is nothing but bull. The UNCLOS convention was signed by China with note of reservation that it does not apply to china’s claim on spratly. Plus China claim is preceded UNCLOS by hundred of years.

History do have weight when it come to territory right otherwise Britain claim on Malvinas is illegal.

Another misconception is Vietnam retain independence because it beat China in the past True enough but at the same time Vietnam always accept China suzerainty over Vietnam, knowing that winning battle doesn’t mean they can win the war if China keep the pressure.

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