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Rising Tensions in Asia Pacific Region

Celebrating the 84th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Liberation Army Daily (LAD, August 01), the military’s mouthpiece carried a very important editorial that could have far reaching implications for the Asia Pacific Region (APR). After the usual observation on the Party’s absolute leadership over the army, boosting party building within the army, army-people relationship, the editorial made the following observations. It called on the PLA officers and soldiers to enhance risk awareness and to be mindful of their mission, as the international military competition becomes increasingly fierce, and modern wars are fast evolving from mechanical wars to information-based ones.

Such important policy editorials must have the approval of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the PLA top citadel but chaired by the Party General Secretary and President, currently Hu Jintao. The LAD editorial has political approval.

The central point of this document may be seen briefly in two parts (i) risk of military confrontation is becoming real, and (ii) the PLA’s demand for more resource inputs to secure China’s sovereign and territorial interests which are non-negotiable and are the country’s “core interests”. For its modernization it is not only financial inputs that are important but human resources of high quality, including cutting edge technology.

In terms of inputs, finance may not be too much of a problem. Human resources are also available indigenously. But quality and high technology are problem areas. Despite China’s claims of producing one of the highest numbers of scientific papers annually, the truth is that a large number of them are either plagiarized or do not pass international referees.

Yet, China has advanced greatly in defence modernization especially in the areas of missiles, nuclear weapons and aircraft. A history of China military development would clearly show that most of the high technology was imported from the west and Russia either legally or through clandestine operations. With the Western ban on sophisticated military and dual technology to China, clandestine acquisition remains the main route. Given the policy stated, the area will remain controversial internationally.

Of more immediate importance was the point that international military competition was becoming “increasingly fierce”. On all important occasions the Chinese officially describe their views on the international and regional situation. There is a clear policy behind it – to tell the world that certain powers were poised to destabilize the global equilibrium. There was a time when the Chinese view was that a world war was inevitable. Then it shifted to “local wars” and “local wars using high technology”. There were also the imminence of “hot spots” exploding – the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait and the India-Pakistan region. These were real threats and China highlighted them perhaps to draw the attention of the international community to diffuse the situation. An exploding neighbourhood was not in the interest of China’s development.

The current warning is less to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya or Syria. Its focus is on the APR, from the Sea of Japan to the South China Sea where China claims territories that are either held fully or partially by other claimants or widely disputed.

2010 was marked by serious contention between China and Japan over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku (in Japan) islands and surrounding waters, resulting in some physical confrontations. At the same time, China used gunboat diplomacy over the South China Sea, Spartley Islands. China claims the whole of the South China Sea and its islands and reefs, parts of which are claimed or held by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Threatening naval exercises were used and more recently, survey ships used by the Philippines and Vietnam have been damaged by Chinese naval craft.

China took advantage of USA’s withdrawal of focus from the region for more than a decade and a half, as it was preoccupied by the Iraq and Afghan wars, and proceeded to tighten its grip on the region. The Declaration of Code of Conduct (DOC) agreement in 2002 and the most recent modalities for the exercise of DOC in July this year between China and ASEAN claimants to the Spratley Islands were executed through Beijing’s pressures.

Both these agreements have setting aside disputes and joint development for the South China Sea resources as the core of these agreements. But in practice neither have any real meaning. China’s principle is ‘What is mine is mine, but what is yours is also mine’. Even top Chinese experts like Shen Dingli are beginning to find fault with Chinese claims and actions.

Writing in the ‘Diplomat’ (Aug. 02) a Japan based web journal, Shen, Director for American Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, pointed out that Article 4 of the DOC accepts peaceful means of resolution of the issue including the principles of the 1982 UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The declaration abjures use of force and clearly refutes any suggestion parties might make that their claims were indisputable, or claiming the entire territory among other things. In practice, however, China has violated all the contents of the DOC, and has repeatedly asserted that China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea is indisputable. It argues its claims on some so-called historical evidence which it has marked by six dotted lines, and has thrown the UNCLOS to the four winds, though it is a signatory to the protocol.

China’s strategic surge is quite transparent. It wants the entire maritime area from the East China Sea/Sea of Japan to the South China Sea under its sovereign control. This is the second islands chain strategy which has been in vogue for years. The natural resources, including aquatic products, are very important for China to capture. Huge oil and gas deposits reported to be available here, are something China needs desperately. But there is a much bigger consideration from the military-strategic dimension. Over lordship of the South China Sea will give China’s growing fleet of submarines a huge pool to safely deploy to intercept international shipping lines, and also foray into the Indian Ocean. In the East China Sea it will have a similar space to forge ahead and prevent US and Japanese navies access to monitor China’s naval activities. At the top of it is area denial to the US in this contentious region.

A survey of available Chinese official media suggests that there are differences between the political and military leadership on these issues. While the general political leadership and their expert advisors appear to be urging caution, a section at least in the military is pushing for a hard line. Two examples may suffice. In May this year, Gen. Liu Yuan, wrote in the preface of a book on the urgency of return to military culture, and that without war there could be no grand (national) unity. He also charged general secretaries and top leaders in the past and recently of selling out to foreign interests and ideologies. General Liu, political commissioner of the PLA’s General Logistics Department (GLD) is reputed to be a rising PLA leader, and belongs to the “princelings” faction, that is, children of former leaders. His father, Liu Shaoqi, was China’s president but was killed by Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The princelings are a rising influential group, tending towards nationalism and are poised to play influential roles in the 5th generation of leadership in late 2012.

The other example is an article by Han Xiaodong (Liaowang, July 4, 2011) professor at the National Defence University (NDU), a military strategist. Prof. Han makes it very clear that there can be no peaceful development without the military, and peace cannot be achieved without employing war. He advocates China must make its territorial claims publicly clear and that employment of military means becomes imperative.

Both Gen. Liu and Prof. Han, in the space of a few months advocate that state craft should be conducted with a mix of diplomacy and military power, and reserving the military only in contingencies such as war contradicts China’s quest of peaceful development. Military hard line views appear to have been inducted in China’s policies, both at home and abroad.  The advocacy of the LAD editorial is a consolidation of such views which say war in its neighbourhood is not inevitable unless its neighbours compromise to China’s demands. It is no wonder, therefore, that China’s diplomacy has shown assertiveness periodically.

China is yet to officially announce the South China Sea is its “Core” interest, but has done so in every other way. What has prevented China doing so is the return of the US to the region emphatically. The move was led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton firmly supported by the Pentagon. The APR is the leading economic actor region in the world, and the US was not willing to cede the region to a unipolar Chinese domination. In 2010 Ms. Clinton made it clear at the Hanoi ASEAN meeting that the freedom of the South China Sea was of US national interest. Her statement was met by a sharp reaction from China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi. Since then, the issues have only been managed but a resolution is far away.

China has shown no signs of relenting. China’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily (August 02) warned of “Due consequences” for relevant countries if they make “serious strategic miscalculations in the South China Sea”. The Philippines was the source of China’s ire.

Hillary Clinton has made US imperative in the region clear. Its defence agreement with Manila has been highlighted; it is improving relations with old enemy Vietnam especially in the defence area, and has upgraded its strategic and defence relations with Japan. China fears that the US is cobbling together an united front in the region against China. Beijing is also trying to improve defence relations with South Korea and Japan, but the bottom line is only on China’s terms. This will not work.

The language of Japan’s annual white paper on defence (August 02) shows a heightened concern and warning over China’s non-transparency in its defence , and its growing “assertiveness” not only towards Japan but towards the entire region. The unstated message in the Japanese paper was that the Japan-US defence co-operation may go beyond the Japanese territory if China continues with its military-diplomatic strategy.

It is not yet clear whether China is evolving a new strategic doctrine, but developments certainly point in that direction. If military force is put on the table or under the table in China’s interlocution with other countries, especially with neighbours on territorial and maritime issues, the region from the Indian Ocean to the APR will plunge into a difficult situation. While negotiating, China need not even use military threat on the table, but follow with military action on the side.

Beijing’s new gambit is to try and persuade the US to share leadership in the APR, arguing that the US was weakening due to its economic predications and the “unstoppable” rise of China’s military power (Li Hongmei, the People’s Daily, August 02, 2011). It is a fantastic suggestion. Needless to say, the US still holds the balance of power in the region. The ASEAN members are still not convinced how long the US will remain focused on the region and what kind of deals it makes with China. US history of engagement in the region does not inspire strong confidence. It will be up to the US to prove itself. Otherwise, there will be mayhem and Washington will also be hurt.

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

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