Sunday, May 2, 2010

Dragon Raises Its Head in South China Sea Power Play

Asia Sentinel

China’s campaign to present its rise as beneficent has made plenty of headway, helped along by actual or promised investment and aid. This is particularly true in natural resources — which Beijing needs — and in heavy infrastructure projects — power stations, roads, etc. — for which Chinese companies have expertise and, being cash-rich, can offer easy credit terms.

But another prong of China’s rise looks increasingly like the application or threat of hard power toward its neighbors. On April 25, Xinhua news agency reported China’s fisheries administration said it had started regular patrols in the South China Sea, sending two vessels to take over from two others currently escorting Chinese fishing boats in the area of the Spratly Islands (known as Nansha in Chinese and Truong Sa in Vietnamese).

The Chinese spokesman said the patrol ships, based at Sanya on the southern coast of Hainan Island, were sent to escort fishing boats in the South China Sea and to reinforce the nation’s fishing rights in the waters around the Spratlys.

The wording here is somewhat ominous. The vessels are not simply there to protect fishing boats from possible harassment by ships from other claimants to the islands, or to provide medical and other civilian support facilities. They are to “reinforce” Chinese fishing rights, implying that they may be used to prevent fishing by non-Chinese. That remains to be seen but there is no doubt that China has been ramping up its actions as well as its rhetoric over the South China Sea in ways that appear to be at odds with earlier promises to settle disputes peaceably and to enable development of resources on a bilateral basis.

That promise was always rather hollow as bilateral deals solve nothing for the Spratlys, given that all the 200 or so islands and shoals comprising this widespread chain are the subject of at least three claims. China claims dominion over all of them with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan claiming a portion. The Spratlys all lie in the southern part of the sea, a long way from Hainan compared to their proximity to the southern coast of Vietnam, the Philippines’ Palawan Island, and Malaysian and Bruneian territory on the north coast of Borneo. The Chinese claim stretches close to all those coasts and to the nearby gas-rich Natuna Islands, which belongs to Indonesia.

China has already been using force to back up its claims to the Paracels (Xisha to Chinese, Huong Sa to the Vietnamese) which are only otherwise claimed by Vietnam. China seized them from then South Vietnam in the dying days of the Thieu regime in Saigon. On March 22, Chinese gunboats seized a Vietnamese fishing vessel reportedly fishing in waters off the Paracels. China has also sought to strengthen its hold on the little sandy islands for tourist development.

The Vietnamese, however, are showing scant sign of being intimidated, despite the burgeoning trade between the two countries. When China announced an earlier patrol in the Spratlys on April 1, Vietnam responded with a visit by President Nguyen Minh Triet to Bach Long Vi, an island halfway between the Vietnam coast and Hainan. It is occupied by Vietnam but has been claimed by China. Meanwhile, Vietnam appears to have been strengthening its presence on the Spratlys, where it occupies more islands and reefs than any other claimant.

Vietnam is buying six submarines from Russia, which retains close relations with Hanoi, and has been gradually developing contacts with the US. Vietnam’s defense minister visited Washington and Paris this year at the same time the prime minister was visiting Moscow. It has accepted US ships for repair near Cam Ranh Bay, the naval base built by the United States during the Vietnam War on the south central coast. The US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell, remarked in Hong Kong on April 26 that “no other country in southeast Asia wanted an improved relationship with the US more than its old enemy, Vietnam.”

Vietnam has also been trying to bring more international attention to South China Sea issues — in November it organized a workshop in Hanoi on the subject. This drew participation not just from China and other claimant states, but experts in law and history from other countries including Russia, Britain, France and Indonesia. Vietnam wants to use its chairmanship of Asean to make this more of a regional issue.

Although the South China Sea’s resources — oil, gas and fish — are significant, particularly for the smaller countries, China’s main goal is strategic — to give it effective control of shipping lanes, and hence of trade, between Japan and Southeast Asia and the main routes to South Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

It is thus ironic that at a time when some Asian nations, not least Indonesia and India, are looking to improve relations with the US to ward off the longer-term possibility of the sea becoming a “Chinese lake,” Japan is undermining its US links with its attempt to remove its bases from Okinawa.

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