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China sails into a sea of controversy

Crew members work on the Chinese warship Wei Fang.
Crew members work on the Chinese warship Wei Fang. AFP

China sails into a sea of controversy

Tension in the region rises as the world’s second biggest economy throws its weight around in a series of territorial disputes

When it comes to sabre-rattling, China’s neighbours are starting to feel rattled. During the past two years, the second biggest economy in the world has crossed swords with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam over disputed specs of land in the South and East China Seas.

The latest flashpoint came less than four weeks ago, when Vietnam accused China of sinking a fishing boat near an oil rig in hotly-contested waters. Last month, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation started drilling for oil in part of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam and China.

Since then, relations between the two communist countries have deteriorated. Clashes at sea have escalated, a media war has broken out and anti-Chinese protesters in Vietnam have set fire to Taiwanese-owned factories. Chinese workers have also been attacked and hundreds have fled across the border to Cambodia. “Many Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to challenge China because it has become their largest trading partner and it is the largest aid donor to nations like Cambodia and Laos,” wrote Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But China’s biggest rival in the region, Japan, has taken a more aggressive stance. Japanese naval power is substantial, with more than 100 warships, state-of-the-art aircraft and 45,000 personnel as well as 400 coastal patrol vessels, according to the The Military Balance 2014, published by The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Grouped under the umbrella organisation the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force, America’s key ally has swapped verbal broadsides with China over disputed Senkaku or Diayou Islands, along with South Korea.

“On a general level, we see China insisting on what it claims to be legitimate sovereignty rights to large areas of the East and South China Sea,” Dr William Choong, a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the IISS, told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

“The Chinese repeat to themselves that they don’t have to heed international law when it comes to such claims. What China’s neighbours don’t accept is that Beijing is not adhering to generally accepted norms of behaviour.

“[Chinese president] Xi Jinping’s overarching narrative of the Chinese dream is based on the idea of restoring China’s honour. [He] sees a China that is all for peace and cooperation with regional countries. Yet China will not step back from tensions or conflict. It’s all part of the message that China is a power to be reckoned with and has a right to prosecute its claims on territorial issues.”

To back that up, China spent $111.2 billion on defence last year, the The Military Balance 2014 reported. Part of that was to upgrade a surface fleet that includes the Lioaning aircraft carrier and more than 60 combat vessels.

This has allowed Beijing to throw its weight around, claiming almost the entire oil and gas rich South China Sea and rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

Naturally, this has increased tension in the region. “[China is playing] a dangerous game of brinkmanship and gunboat diplomacy,” Benigno Aquino, the Philippines president, told the Financial Times. “Normally what happens to Vietnam eventually happens to the Philippines.”

Yet regional leaders concerned about Beijing’s growing power still have a few cards left to play. In the months ahead, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will take part in key summits with representatives from America, Japan and India.

Undoubtedly, the territorial disputes will be high on the agenda.

Although the topic was surprisingly omitted from the ASEAN conference in Phnom Penh last year, it will be aired this time around. “ASEAN officials recognise that they will not need to take the lead in discussions with China about the South China Sea at these meetings,” writes Hiebert.

Of course, Washington’s role will be crucial. With the largest blue water fleet in the world, America holds the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region and is monitoring the situation closely. In a tough statement last month, the US vice president Joe Biden and other senior officials warned that Beijing’s behaviour in the maritime disputes was “dangerous and provocative”.

Sabre-rattling, it appears, can be a double-edged sword.

Gordon Watts is Managing Editor at the Post Weekend


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