Beijing’s recent claim that over one million square miles of sea, including the busy commercial sea lanes of communication used by a score of countries, as well as China’s rapid naval expansion and modernization programs, has raised serious diplomatic and defense concerns from the Philippines to the Potomac.
The most recent rhetorical fusillade came from Beijing’s own military. “China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing” to support its claims, stated Col. Geng Yan-sheng, Ministry of Defense spokesman, who added, “We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries.”
In other words while the huge 1.2 million basin bordering a half dozen countries was “historically Chinese,” the Beijing rulers in their enlightened benevolence, will allow other vessels passage — including the United States, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. One should really say that under international law, these sea lanes of communication are not under Chinese sovereignty and thus free for maritime transit.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated correctly that it was in the United States “national interest” that freedom of navigation be maintained in the sea through which passes a huge amount of global commerce. Interestingly Clinton’s remarks were made in Vietnam during a Regional Forum of the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN).
Beijing’s renewed claims over the South China Sea have been brewing for nearly a decade off and on, evoking Benito Mussolini’s own boisterous dictum of the Mediterranean basin being an Italian Sea.
Mare Nostrum the historic Roman term later used by Benito Mussolini to call the waters touching more than a dozen countries, was “historically Italian” given the fact that the ancient Romans sailed through and ruled most of the region. While this was certainly true, Beijing’s Marxist Mandarins are using the same logic; that of seaborne contact and commerce during some of China’s earlier dynasties.
What further complicates the issue is China’s claim over a number of mostly uninhabited island groups; the Spratly and the Paracel Islands whose many islets have a myriad overlapping claims by Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The island groups are said to be resource rich and hold potential petroleum deposits.
China’s growing commercial clout has seen a corresponding rise in the naval power and military potential. This is normal. What becomes troubling though is Beijing’s bullying of other regional powers from holding naval exercises in “Chinese waters” especially the adjacent Yellow Sea off the Korean peninsula.
Such posture reflects the growing power, potential, and the political will to use the navy to defend what Beijing sees the South China Sea as its “core interests” along with equally tenuous claims over Tibet and Taiwan. But be assured some of Beijing’s claims deal directly with Vietnam who shares a land border with China but more critically a number of disputed islands and waters.
According to a new Pentagon report, Mainland China has the largest force of surface ships, submarines and amphibious warfare vessels in Asia, with more than 75 warships and more than 60 submarines.
Equally the PRC has just revealed a new nuclear attack submarine called the Type 095, which will have better weapons systems, and will be presumably used to escort Chinese aircraft carriers in the future. Operating from the expanded naval base on the southernmost Hainan island, the Chinese navy has indisputable platform for power projection
Why? To militarily coerce Southeast Asia, and moreover to send clear political signals as far north as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
Thus, one such tactic is to bully regional states such as Vietnam. Despite being a fellow communist regime, historical rifts between Beijing and Hanoi, still linger. China sees Vietnam as tilting to the USA and thus wants to “teach it a lesson” although not in the way which Deng Xioaping did in 1979 when he blundered into a war with his southern neighbor. And the Philippines are easy to intimidate especially since American bases are long gone.
The Obama Administration has allowed the continued decline of American sea power in the Pacific, and moreover has subtly signaled that the USA may not be the guarantor of peace and stability in East Asia. The perception, if not the strategic reality, emerges that the U.S. Navy is overstretched, over tasked and undersized. In other words a power vacuum is emerging in the Pacific. China is quite prepared to fill it.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense
issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.