Just as China was protesting the draping of the Philippine flag on the coffin of Rolando Mendoza, the cop-turned-terrorist who murdered eight Hong Kong nationals in Manila last Monday, its submarines were returning home from a successful mission to plant a Chinese flag beneath the South China Sea. It was the latest act of renewed Chinese assertiveness in the disputed region and a demonstration of China’s underwater capabilities.
Of course, the flag-planting doesn’t give the Chinese what they don’t already have with regards to their claims to the South China Sea. It’s not the first time in recent years that China demonstrated unilateral assertiveness either. But the stunt was significant because it was a rebuke to the United States, which has recently weighed in on the dispute.
During the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi last July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” and supports “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.” China didn’t hide its displeasure over these comments, raising tensions in a region that, although long considered a flashpoint, had been relatively calm in the last few years.
The South China Sea is a vital international sealane that is believed to be rich in energy resources. It contains two groups of islets: the Paracels (claimed by Vietnam) and the Spratlys (claimed wholly or partially by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei). China claims ownership over the entire sea and all the islets it contains.
Until Clinton’s Hanoi statement, the United States had generally kept its hands off the South China Sea dispute. China had filled the vacuum created by the departure of American forces from the Philippines in the 1990s through its grab and talk tactics with little opposition from the United States. Initially, the ASEAN served as a credible check to China’s presence in the area but in recent years, the said organization has been unsuccessful in preventing the growing assertiveness of an increasingly confident China. Deviating from the spirit of the ASEAN-sponsored Code of Conduct in the area, for instance, Beijing has recently announced that its claim to the South China Sea is a “core interest”– a language that, analysts point out, had earlier been reserved only to Tibet and Taiwan.
Beyond the South China Sea, I think the bigger picture is the fact that, while the balance of power in Asia-Pacific is still heavily tilted towards the United States, the People’s Republic of China is presenting a serious challenge. And apparently, after years of relative apathy, the United States has decided to feign a response. As a result, the maneuverings between the two powers in the region have intensified particularly in the last few weeks. Although these diplomatic clashes are by no means alarming, they are worth our attention.
Above: The USS George Washington
There was, for instance, the joint exercises between South Korea and the United States, which Japan also joined, in the international waters of Northeast Asia. Supposedly meant to be a show of force to North Korea after the latter allegedly sank a South Korean warship earlier this year, the exercises featured the USS George Washington, America’s biggest aircraft carrier and a symbol of its naval power in this side of the world, and were scheduled to be held near the Yellow Sea, making China within the range ofWashington. Although the exerices were later moved farther to the Sea of Japan amid Beijing’s protests, the Chinese apparently still saw the drills as a demonstration of military power directed not only to North Korea but to China as well. This is because China has territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and with South Korea over the Socotra Rock in the Yellow Sea.
To make matters worse, Washington made a port call on Vietnam right after the exercises. It was said to be symbolic gesture meant to celebrate the normalization of Vietnamese-American relations but from China’s perspective, it was an assurance of, at the very least, American moral support for Vietnam’s efforts to ward off China’s assertiveness in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Not too long after that, United States military officials met with leaders of the Philippine military in Manila to discuss China’s “assertiveness” in the South China Sea. (Update: USS Washington and other US warships also made a port call in Manila on Sept. 4)
Perhaps partly in retaliation, Chinese President Hu Jintao received North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in his resthouse in the northeast last week. Some say receiving Kim in that particular location is a symbolic gesture similar to the way American presidents invite their favorite allies to Camp David. Apparently, Kim was able to get not only China’s blessing for his son’s succession but also the money needed to pull off a grand ceremony to appoint him. All these are significantly different from the way China maintained a calculated show of distance from North Korea in order to feign cooperation with the United States in solving the nuclear dispute during the Bush years. And the fact that these happen in the midst of the Obama administration’s effort to punish Kim with stronger sanctions so it could negotiate with him from a stronger position is not coincidental.
Also, China announced last Sunday that its navy would conduct its own military drills, with live ammunitions, in the East China Sea near the disputed territories with South Korea and Japan, a gesture that would likely be seen as a response to the US-South Korea-Japan exercises. For its part, the United States has also scheduled another set of military drills with South Korea in the same area next month.
Central in this long-term balance of power game is Taiwan, which China has always wanted to reintegrate to itself by all means including force and which the United States is committed to defend. Earlier this year, the Pentagon released an 83-page report highlighting China’s military build-up that continues to shift the military balance in the Taiwan Straight towards the mainland. Investments have been made on more surface warships and submarines, an expanding arsenal of ballistic missiles and an air force capable of deploying at least 500 jet fighters over the Taiwan Strait.
The fact of the matter is that China has been increasing its military spending by at least ten percent every year. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a speech last May, emphasized that meeting this military posture is a priority for the Obama administration. He even called for the fusion of the US air force and the navy forces in the Pacific in a policy he called AirSea Battle, a mimic of the NATO’s Cold War-era AirLand Battle military doctrine that emphasized the importance of ”forward-deployed NATO tanks and missile-armed infantry supported by jet fighters carrying smart munitions” in countering the large Soviet army on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
It should ofcourse be emphasized that the US Seventh Fleet is still the biggest kid on the Pacific block. And overall, the United States armed forces are still miles ahead of China’s in terms of military hardware and technology. In fact, the American navy is still bigger and better-equipped than all the next ten biggest navies in the world combined.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the Chinese aren’t catching up in the arms race with the Americans.
That is because the Chinese are using unconventional and creative ways to meet the American military posture in the region. Instead of acquiring the formidable military machines of the United States, which are expensive, China is instead identifying the vulnerabilities of those machines and developing cheaper weapons that could hit those vulnerabilities.
For example, instead of building an expensive and complicated network of satellite communication system that could match the United States’s the Chinese have instead developed a missile that could shoot down satelites from orbit, making the American satelite system extremely vulnerable and thus tipping the balance in space.
Also, instead of challenging American naval superiority by acquiring aircraft carriers, China developed instead an anti-aircraft carrier missile that has the capability of sinking American aircraft carriers. While China is still developing the technology to track a moving target and guide this warhead to it, once it does so the USS Washington, long considered the most powerful symbol of the US Seventh Fleet’s superiority in the Pacific, would become a virtual white elephant and the Americans’ capability to deploy forward forces with ease anywhere in the region would be severely compromised, thereby putting a halt to America’s global naval power projection.
Given these non-linear ways of challenging American military might along with the fact that China has been increasing its arms spending while America struggles to maintain its military posture amid stretched resources, it’s easy to say that China is fast becoming a credible rival of the United States in this part of the world.
To be continued (If I’m not lazy, that is)