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China More Assertive Post-Olympics

Till the successful conclusion of the Beijing Olympics in August,2008, China projected to the international community its benign face as a still developing country interested in peace and harmony. It avoided public over-emphasis on its territorial claims—-whether against India in respect of Arunachal Pradesh or whether against the ASEAN countries in respect of sovereignty over certain islands in the South China Sea. It also played down its interest in projecting itself as a power with legitimate interests in the Indian Ocean region though it may not be an Indian Ocean power.

2. After the successful conclusion of the Olympics, this benign face is giving way to a more assertive demeanour marked by a determination to project China’s claims and interests even while continuing to project itself as a power interested in peace and harmony. The policy of peace and harmony in everybody’s interest is showing signs of giving way to a policy of peace and harmony subject to China’s interests.

3. The Chinese jumped with alacrity on the opportunity provided by the sharp increase in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden area to send an anti-piracy patrol to that area.Three ships of the Chinese Navy—— the missile-armed destroyers “DDG-171 Haikou” and “DDG-169 Wuhan” and the supply ship “Weishanhu”— sailed from the Yalong Bay naval base on the Hainan Island on December 26, 2008, to undertake anti-piracy patrol for the protection of Chinese ships and crew from attacks by Somali pirates. The three-ship task force reportedly has a Chinese special forces unit (strength not known) and two helicopters.

4. Even though Beijing tried to project the despatch of the patrol as a purely anti-piracy exercise, the strategic much-beyond-piracy dimensions of the decision were stressed by Governmental and non-Governmental experts to their own compatriots. In this connection, reference is invited to my article of December 28,2008, titled “China’s Anti-Piracy Patrol — Strategic Dimensions” at .

5.The State-owned Xinhua news agency had quoted Wu Shengli, the Commander of the Chinese Navy, as telling the 1000 sailors of the three ships at a function before the Task Force set sail as follows: “It’s the first time we go abroad to protect our strategic interests armed with military force. It’s the first time for us to organise a naval force on an international humanitarian mission and the first time for our navy to protect important shipping lanes far from our shores.” Li Wei, Director of the Anti-terrorism Research Centre of the China Institute of Contemporary Relations, said: “It is a huge breakthrough in China’s concepts about security. It sends a strong political message to the international community that China with its improved economic and military strength is willing to play a larger role in maintaining world peace and security.”

6. Less than a month after the highly successful (from Beijing’s point of view) visit by Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to China from February 20 to 22, 2009, fresh friction developed in the relations between the US and China following an incident of alleged spying by a US naval ship in Chinese waters in the South China Sea.The US Defence Department compained that on March 8, 2009, five Chinese ships manoeuvred dangerously close to USS Impeccable, an unarmed US Navy surveillance vessel, while it was on routine operations in international waters 75 miles (120 km) south of the Hainan island. A Pentagon statement said that five Chinese vessels —–a naval intelligence-gathering ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol Vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel, and two small trawlers—– “aggressively manoeuvred” around the USS Impeccable “in an apparent co-ordinated effort to harass the US ocean surveillance ship”. US officials complained that the incident followed days of “increasingly aggressive” acts by Chinese ships.

7.Strongly refuting the US allegations, Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on March 10, 2009, that the US ship had violated international and Chinese laws. He described the Pentagon statement as “totally inaccurate”. According to him, the US ship was conducting activities within the waters of its Special Economic Zone. Under international law, Chinese territorial waters extend to 12 nautical miles (22km) off its coast and its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends to 200 nautical miles. The USS Impeccable is used to map the ocean floor with sonar. The information is used by the US Navy to steer its own submarines or track those of other nations. The extent of the Chinese anger over the naval incident became evident from the way the Chinese authorities mobilised a number of serving and retired officers of the Chinese Navy to deny the US version and to condemn alleged US naval espionage in Chinese waters.

8.Vice-Admiral Jin Mao, former Vice-Commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Navy, was quoted by the “China Daily” on March 11, 2009, as saying that the American vessel was not just a surveillance ship, but a spy ship. “What was the ship doing? Anyone with eyes can see, and our navy can see even more clearly. Go and ask the Americans, ask their embassy. Ask their officials what their ship was doing in Chinese waters. It’s like a man with a criminal record wandering just outside the gate of a family home. When the host comes out to find out what he is doing there, the man complains that the host had violated his rights.” Please refer to my article of March 12,2009,Titled “Fresh Friction In Sino-US Relations Over “Naval Espionage”, Tibet” at

9.The “China Daily” also quoted Rear-Admiral Zhang Deshun, Deputy Chief of Staff of the PLA’s Navy, as corroborating that the US vessel was a spy ship. The “Impeccable” carried a 2-km-long detection cable and its sheer presence threatened Chinese vessels in the country’s maritime territory, he said, and added that the US navy’s surveillance near Chinese maritime territory had been consistent, but this time “it is too close”.

10.According to the paper, Rear-Admiral Lin Yongqing, former Deputy Chief of Staff of the PLA’s South China Sea Fleet, said the response of Chinese ships was “nothing wrong”. “It’s easy to tell (who’s right and who’s wrong). The Chinese ships were exercising their legal rights.” Rear-Admiral Zhang Huachen, from the East China Sea Fleet, said that Beijing is “strongly against” Washington’s military moves in China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea and defended Chinese ships’ activities there.

11. A careful study of the Chinese comments on the incident showed, firstly, that the Chinese treated the exclusive economic zone as synonymous with exclusive Chinese zone in which no country can undertake any activity—-economic or non-economic—without Chinese permission and , secondly, that the exclusive economic zone is their “maritime territory.

12.In its annual report to the Congress on the Chinese Armed Forces released on March 25,2009, the US Defence Department said: “Chinese armed forces continue to develop and field disruptive military technologies, including those for anti-access/area-denial, as well as for nuclear, space, and cyber warfare, that are changing regional military balances and that have implications beyond the Asia-Pacific region. The military buildup has permitted China to help with international peacekeeping, humanitarian and counter-piracy missions, but could also allow it to project power to ensure access to resources or enforce claims to disputed territories.China was deploying more short-range missiles opposite Taiwan and developing military capabilities to deter the island’s goal of “de jure independence.” Beijing was moving in more missiles despite reduced tensions in the past year since Taiwan elected a new President.Apart from its traditional focus on Taiwan, China was acquiring weaponry and aircraft that could enable it to carry out extended air operations into the South China Sea. The Chinese have built a new naval base at Hainan Island in the South China Sea that can serve its growing fleet of submarines, including those equipped with ballistic missiles. The port, which has underground facilities, would provide the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy with direct access to vital international sea lanes, and offers the potential for stealthy deployment of submarines into the deep waters of the South China Sea.”

13.A spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry denounced the report as a “gross” misrepresentation of facts and urged the United States to halt the annual publication. He said: “This report issued by the US side continues to play up the fallacy of China’s military threat.” He demanded that the US should stop issuing its annual report to “avoid further damage to the two sides’ military relations”.

14.All UN member-countries were required to submit to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf by May 13,2009, declarations indicating where their boundaries lay. This brought to the fore once again the dispute between China on the one side and some ASEAN countries and Taiwan on the other regarding their claimed ownership of certain islands in the South China Sea. In a commentary disseminated on May 13,2009, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) said: “Perhaps one of the most complicated areas to resolve is who owns what in the South China Sea, with China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia all having competing claims. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu says the country has indisputable sovereignty over disputed South China Sea islands. He says this jurisdiction also extends to what is below the seabed – which is important because the South China Sea has valuable oil and gas reserves. China has recently become more assertive in pushing its territorial claims in the area, according to the BBC’s Michael Bristow in Beijing. It has formally told the UN not to consider a similar claim from Vietnam. “[This] is a gross infringement upon China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, thus illegal and invalid,” said Mr Ma. ”

15.Before making its submission to the UN Commission on its claims to islands in the South China Sea, the Philippines Congress approved on February 17, 2009, an Archipelagic Baselines Act that identified the Philippine’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as a “regime of islands” under Filipino sovereignty. The Xinhua news agency reported on February 18,2009, that China’s Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya summoned the Philippine charge d’affairs in Beijing and denounced the Act as a violation of China’s sovereignty and therefore “illegal and invalid”.Beijing cancelled a planned trip to Manila by the Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress, Li Jianguo. The Filipino Bill also elicited protests from Vietnam and Taiwan. The eruption into the open of the differences between China and the Philippines was followed by the incident involving the alleged Chinese harassment of a US ship in the South China Sea. The Xinhua reported on March 16,2009, that China was sending one of its largest patrol boats, the Yuzheng 311, to protect its vessels in the Paracel and Spratly Islands and to “demonstrate Beijing’s sovereignty over China’s islands” .

16.In a commentary relating to these developments disseminated on April 9,2009, the Jamestown Foundation, the well-known think tank of Washington DC, said: “Developments in the South China Sea during the first quarter of 2009 reinforced several trends that have been apparent over the past two years. First, the Spratly Islands dispute has once again come to dominate Sino-Philippine relations, despite attempts by Beijing and Manila to move beyond it. Second, China has adopted a more assertive posture toward its territorial and maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea than at any time since the late 1990s. Third, the 2002 breakthrough agreement between the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to manage tensions in the South China Sea is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Fourth, the USNS Impeccable incident on March 8 highlighted the growing strategic importance of the South China Sea for the United States and China, and reawakened concerns in ASEAN capitals that the region may one day become the principal theater wherein Sino-U.S. maritime rivalry is played out.”

17. Almost simultaneously with signs of renewed Chinese assertiveness over its South China Sea claims have come signs of renewed Chinese assertiveness over its claims to Arunachal Pradesh, which it does not recognise as Indian territory. The negotiations over the long-pending border dispute between the Special Representatives of the Prime Ministers of the two countries continue to be in a state of deadlock due to the reported Chinese insistence that India should transfer at least the Tawang Tract, if not the whole of Arunachal Pradesh, to China. However, it must be noted that the two countries have not allowed the continuing differences over Arunachal Pradesh to come in the way of the development of bilateral relations in other fields and expansion of people-to-people contacts. The total value of the bilateral trade crossed US $ 50 billion last year and Chinese construction companies have reportedly won the largest number of construction contracts anywhere in Asia in India, with the total value of the contracts won by them till the end of last year exceeding US $ 12 billion. The economic melt-down in both the countries has not so far affected the bilateral economic relations. There is presently a greater comfort level in the relations between the two countries and between their political leaderships. It should also be noted that China has not allowed the presence and activities of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his followers from the Indian territory to damage the developing bilateral relations.

18. However, hopes that these positive aspects will ultimately make China dilute its rigid stand on Arunachal Pradesh have been belied. China continues to be as obstinate as ever on this issue.This was evident not only from the lack of progress in the bilateral talks, but also from other actions taken by China periodically such as refusing to issue Chinese visas to Indian citizens from Arunachal Pradesh on the ground that it does not recognise them as Indian citizens. China has now taken this dispute one step further by reportedly opposing an Indian request to the Asian Development Bank for a development loan of US $ 2.9 billion. One of the projects for which India proposes to use the loan is for flood control in Arunachal Pradesh. China has reportedly opposed the Indian request on the ground that Arunachal Pradesh is a disputed territory. It wants the proposal relating to Arunachal Pradesh to be removed from the loan request before it can support it. The Chinese opposition has put India in a dilemma. Whether the Indian request is rejected because of the Chinese opposition or whether India withdraws it, that would be interpreted by Beijing as international acceptance of its claim that Arunachal Pradesh is a disputed territory. That could further harden its stand on this issue in the border talks.

19. The fact that the successful Beijing Olympics is safely behind it is only one reason for the increased Chinese assertiveness on pending territorial disputes post-Olympics. Another—-even more important– reason is the realisation of its importance in a world affected by a severe economic crisis. Its economic muscle, its military muscle made possible by its economic muscle and the dependence of the West on Chinese cooperation for overcoming the current economic crisis have added to China’s self-confidence in itself and made it less amenable to compromise in territorial disputes.

20. The West’s dependence on Chinese co-operation for overcoming the economic crisis has made it more receptive to Chinese concerns in matters such as maritime security. Despite the strong stand taken by the US in the wake of the incident in the South China Sea in March last, increasing voices are now being heard from Governmental as well as non-Governmental circles that the West should take note of not only Chinese intentions and capabilities, but also its concerns and that those concerns, which are legitimate, should be addressed.

21. At a recent conference on Indian Ocean security attended by this writer, a non-Governmental Australian analyst argued that India should take the initiative for associating China with discussions and events on the Indian Ocean Security in order to remove its concerns that some of these are actually directed against it. Similarly, voices are being heard from the US that to remove Chinese suspicions and concerns it should be associated with some of the multilateral naval exercises.

22. The “Indian Express” has reported as follows on May 15,2009: “A clear disconnect has emerged in the military views of India and the US, with a top American military commander saying Washington is comfortable with the increased presence of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean, a suggestion that New Delhi bristles at.This apart, Admiral Timothy J. Keating, who heads the Hawaii-based US Pacific Command, said he would like China to come aboard – as an observer and later as a participant – in the annual India-US Malabar naval war games that occasionally take on a trilateral hue. India is hardly expected to root for this.And, the US would be comfortable with the Chinese Navy acquiring berthing facilities in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, a move that India has been vehemently opposing, Keating, who was on a two-day visit here (New Delhi), told reporters Thursday.”

23. Thus, instead of creating an alarm, the increasing Chinese assertiveness seems to be giving rise to a realisation of the need to pay greater attention to Chinese concerns and accommodate them, where possible. This trend has to be taken note of by Indian policy-makers in evolving their future policy. In relation to China, India finds itself handicapped because of its neglect of its economic development, military modernisation and infrastructure development. The strong economic linkages, which China has developed with the West—-particularly the US—have helped it strategically by moderating their policies towards China. We hardly have such linkages on which we can bank. Our hopes that just because we are the largest democracy in the world, the West would stand by us if we have a confrontation with China are ill-based.

24. Unless and until we succeed in implementing a crash programme for strengthening our economic and military muscle and for strengthening our infrastructure in the areas near the Chinese border, we would continue to be in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis China. The border dispute is not going to be solved in the near future. We should not allow this to come in the way of the further development of our bilateral relations with China in the economic and other fields At the same time, we should no longer neglect the task of developing our economic and military strength, so that in the event of the present deadlock leading to a likely confrontation we are not caught unprepared once again as we were in 1962. We suffered a humiliation at the hands of China in 1962 because we let the confrontation develop without preparing ourselves for the consequences of the confrontation.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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