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China’s Near Sea Policy Provoking Regional Instability

Reacting to the US Department of Defence study paper on China’s Military and Security Developments, 2011, China’s Defense Ministry Spokesman, Yang Yujun, referring to the India section said “China and India are not enemies, not opponents, but  neighbours and partners” (China Daily, Sept 01). The Pentagon report had said that China’s new advanced rocket systems were a “deterrent” against India and the “mistrust” between the countries was leading to tensions.  Yet, China’s ‘near sea’ politics has seriously disturbed not only India, but Japan, Australia, the US and the ASEAN countries. While Yang Yujun was officially pledging friendship with India, something else was happening on the side.  An Indian navy ship, INS Airavat, sailing in the South China sea in July was warned by the Chinese navy to get off the waters as it was China’s sovereign waters,  A added irritant for China was that the India ship was on an official port call to Vietnam.

Apparently provoked by Indian newspaper reports that India had protested to China over the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu declared at an official briefing in Beijing (Sept 15)  that China was opposed to any country engaging in oil and gas exploration and development activities in the waters under China’s jurisdiction.  Although Jiang Yu did not mention India by name, her statement was in answer to a set-up question by a Chinese journalist on India’s ONGC Videsh exploring in Vietnam’s claimed waters as per agreement with the Vietnamese authorities.  Jian reiterated that China enjoyed “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China sea, and hoped foreign countries will not get involved in the dispute between China and other claimants  to  sections  of  the  sea  and  its  islands  and  reefs called the Spratly islands.  While China claims the entire sea other claimants in parts are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.  With the Indian foreign ministry holding that it supported the freedom of navigation in international waters including the South China sea, the Chinese official newspaper, the Global Times (Sept 16) a subsidiary of the communist party mouth piece, the People’s Daily  came out with a sharp editorial.  It called on the Chinese government to use “every means possible” to stop the ONGC from going ahead with the exploration, warning India that any  cooperation with Vietnam will amount to a serious political provocation that would push China “to the limit”.  It cautioned  that China “cherishes the Sino-Indian friendship, but that does not mean China values it  above all”.

This hard hitting editorial obviously conveyed the view of the Chinese communist party and the government, and is serious.  More important, the article surprisingly remarked that the “China’s society has already been indignant about Indian intervention in the Dalai (Lama) problem”.

Bringing the Dalai Lama into a totally separate issue has not been noticed for a long time.  India had endorsed China’s position on Tibet in writing when Prime Minster Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China in 2003.  India has repeatedly explained its position on the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in India and China, in turn, expressed satisfaction.

Then, why this shift in position?  China has also shifted its position on the Kashmir issue. And its behaviour on certain other issues suggest that there is significant strategic policy change towards India, displaying an erosion of trust, and  looking  at  India  in  a  different  perspective.   Lastly, China has expressed concern with growing India-Vietnam relations including in military-to-military relations which would encourage Hanoi to stand up more strongly against China.  Beijing remains suspicious that India was quietly in league with the US to contain China.

There is a larger picture, however.  It has been evident for some years that China was trying to dominate Asia, and was in a hurry.  The year 2010 was particularly noticeable for its aggressive and assertive behaviour.  While there were some signals towards the end of 2010, especially from foreign policy advisor, Dai Bingguo, that China would concentrate on development and would not provoke others.  Its behaviour in 2011 shows otherwise.

Why?  From one angle, the country is now readying for a massive leadership change, including in the military, in 2012-2013.  There is a power struggle between hardliners, and the reformists who are not necessarily liberal in the western sense but are more realists.  Political and ideological differences among the upcoming leadership is becoming clearer.

But there may be still another reason for the hurry.  China is besotted by internal problems which can weaken it in the future.  It is correct that economically it is in a historic high, and the same is fuelling the huge rise in its military strength. Riding on the economic decline of the west, they also know this cannot last.  The Chinese leadership is actually concerned about rising official corruption which is an issue for the public.  Public disturbances have risen sharply.  The central government has lost significant control over the provinces and lower administrative levels.  The Party’s work style and policies are coming  under  criticism  increasingly  not only from the general public and the dissidents, but even from former leaders and current intellectuals.  The Party’s legitimacy is being threatened which translates to the party and government leaders and cadres.  Without a strong party, the country’s unity would be challenged, in the Party’s perception.  There are too many fissiparous forces.

Its one-child policy has also become a demographic challenge.  By 2025 the nonworking population will start for outgrowing the working population.  If multiple children are allowed, then the  1.4 billion plus population will double in no time – something not acceptable.

China’s development and growth is increasingly dependent on import of oil, gas and other important natural resources.  It has to secure its overseas resources and their transportation routes to the country.

China is not in a very envious situation though no one is envisaging a collapse.   Yet, big guns and trillions of dollars are not the solution for China.

The option before China is whether to work peacefully with the world in shared development, or use threats and military muscle to increase its territory and wealth.  Unfortunately, there is confusion in China, and those who favour power domination are calling the shots.  Since 2004, Chinese policy and strategy doctrines veered to be military driven, endorsed from the top by Hu Jintao, President, Party General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC).   This can be summarised as follows in PLA’s responsibility:

  1. Support the party retain its ruling position

  2. Safeguarding national sovereignty, security and interests of national development

  3. Modernising and strengthening national defense

  4. Maintaining world peace and stability (Hu Jintao’s 2004 doctrine in this part of promoting common development has been dropped from the 2010 declarations)

The above leaves to no doubt the immensity of concern over China using military means to safeguard its internal, near abroad, far overseas national interests.

China has for long regarded the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea (Sea of Japan) and the South China Sea as areas of special strategic importance. By the time the Communist Party came to power in 1949, China had started publishing maps of its territorial claims. More maps had been added since including on the India border.

These three Seas are seen as security buffers which also hold enormous gas and oil resources. To establish their claims they have used media propaganda, legal arguments and show of military power. Understanding their propaganda and legal arguments are feeble, military means appears to have become the main option.

In 2010, a large Chinese shipping vessel collided with Japanese patrol boats near the Diaoyu (or Senkaku in Japan) islands in the East China Sea. It is alleged the Chinese vessel deliberately rammed the Japanese boats to spark a controversy. This incident destroyed whatever repair was done in Sino-Japanese relations despite the fact China is Japan’s largest partner. Japan has reacted gradually and strongly using the diplomatic and public channels.

In South China Sea, China has been similarly aggressive with Vietnam and the Philippines, employing military provocation and intimidation. This phenomenon is rapidly increasing. In 2002 China signed the Declaration of Code of Conduct (DOC) with the other claimants on South China Sea. It has neither abided by the DOC and, though a signatory to UN Laws of Sea Convention (UNCLOS), has refused to abide by it. China uses international conventions and regimes when it suits, but rejects them with impunity when they do not serve its requirements.

Most dangerous is the fact that Chinese leaders and their intellectual brigade are promoting ultra-nationalism on the South China sea and East China Sea sovereignty.

The International Herald Leader, a subsidiary of the official news agency Xuinhua, reported (July 25), the deliberations of a seminar on South China Sea strategies, by scholars of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The CASS is China’s prime official think tank and provides inputs for the decision making process. The seminar advocated the following (a) media warfare including in foreign media (b) actively (militarily) prevent foreign companies from exploration in south China Sea, and failing diplomatic and propaganda initiative, use military means to occupy and retake the Spratly islands (c) restrict US intervention even by threats to sanction US companies engaged in China (d) avoid international and UN conventions (e) raise nationalism, and (f) use anti-piracy exercises as a reuse to place the navy in all parts of the waters.

The most recent Chinese signal to escalate the conflict situation in the South China Sea was given through Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao and later corroborated by the Global times. China is forming its fourth Naval Fleet to be based at San Ya, with two aircraft carriers. The Varyag that Chinese acquired, yet again by deception declaring it be used as a casino/entertainment park, but refurbished into an operational carrier, will be ready for active duty by 2015. China is on course to build more air craft carriers by 2020.

San Ya has emerged into a major submarine base with underground berthing facilities. The base has been prepared to station the more advanced nuclear submarines like the Type-93, Type-94, and under construction Type-96. The Jin-Class SSBN are armed with JL-2 nuclear missiles.

The Hainan islands overlook the South China Sea, and in a short time Chinese submarines are expected to prowl these waters. Chinese militarization of the South China Sea will come sooner than later.

China’s main problem is US intervention in the region. The US made it clear to China in 2010 that it will ensure freedom of navigation in the sea as its national interest. China is on the course to develop area denial weapons (DF-21D missiles) mainly to counter the US. But US-China relations have always surprised many.

The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea involves most of the international community as 50 percent of the world’s merchant traffic passes through the South China Sea. If China decides to control this sea lane it will become an international issue. If some of the nations decide to negotiate with China for their maritime routes, the cost will be unbearable.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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