After a series of aggressive incidents involving Chinese patrol boats and subsequent soothing official statements, many analysts are trying to figure out what’s really going on. More specifically, why are different sections of China’s government giving mixed signals, and choosing, in nearly one fell swoop, to embarrass their own leaders, undermine China’s carefully nurtured and reasonably successful ‘charm offensive’ towards ASEAN, and play right into the US strategy of convincing ASEAN nations that they need its protection from a bullying China? In China, has the political train left the station, and are ASEAN nations just changing seats or cars on the train?
We’re talking here not just about blatant violations of the solemnly agreed Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)—all parties are guilty of that—but of contradicting the words of leaders by poorly timed actions. When Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie was telling the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 5 that ‘China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea’ and that ‘China stood by’ the DOC, news media were reporting that on May 26, a Vietnamese survey ship operating on its claimed continental shelf had its seismic cables cut by a Chinese patrol boat.
Shortly after that event, China sent two Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission to Southeast Asia to try to reassure other ASEAN claimants. But a second such incident occurred on June 9 – only two weeks later. On March 4, the Philippines protested an incident on the Reed Bank in which two Chinese patrol boats allegedly threatened to ram a Philippine survey ship. Then, on the eve of Liang’s visit to Manila, Chinese fighter jets allegedly harassed members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines near disputed islands in the South China Sea. China responded to frenetic protests from Vietnam and the Philippines that any exploration in the Spratly area without its consent is a violation of its jurisdiction and sovereignty. This real time link between its stark and sweeping position and its enforcement has sent a chill down the spines of other ASEAN claimants and drawn US attention.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
These disputes and incidents are certainly not new—but why are they occurring now, and why is China sending such mixed signals? This was supposed to be a period of negotiations to transform the DOC into an official enforceable code. Needless to say, this effort may now be moribund. Despite China’s rhetoric, ASEAN nations are genuinely alarmed and are looking to the United States for succour and support. The United States—having confronted China and injected itself into the issue via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech at the ARF Foreign Minister’s meeting in Hanoi in July 2010—is only too happy to help—at least verbally and with signals that militaries understand.
The great irony is that none of this was necessary for China. Its problem with the US concerns the intelligence gathering activities of US military vessels and aircraft—the EP-3, the Impeccable, the Victorious, the Bowditch—in what it claims are its waters—not conflicting claims to islands or ocean space. These can only be linked in one worst-case scenario—that China has decided that it disagrees with portions of the UN Law of the Sea Treaty that it ratified and with international law that Western powers developed and have imposed on China while it was weak. In other words, China is indeed serious about its nine-dashed line claim to all features, waters and resources of the South China Sea and it alone will decide the passage regime to be imposed therein. This is radical and could lead to war.