So You Think China Is All Peace Loving And Cuddly. Well, You’re Wrong. Just Ask Some Of Its Neighbours
Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: Another standoff between the Chinese navy and Philippine fishery protection vessels at the Scarborough Shoal. This follows similar incidents with Vietnamese fishing boats off the Spratly islands. Disputes over territory in the South China Sea have been dormant for almost a decade. But now it seems Beijing has decided that it will use force to cow its smaller neighbours?
China has gone to great pains over the last decade to impress on its neighbours that its intentions are peaceful. This time the Middle Kingdom has devoted little attention to diplomacy. Muscle has taken over. It has courted the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN) but at its latest meeting it encouraged divisions to further its own ends.
In 2007 China announced that it was incorporating the Paracel and Spratly islands and Macclesfield Bank in a new administrative region embracing two and a half million square kilometres. In June Sansha county was upgraded and declared the capital of the area. It elected a mayor and China’s Central Military Commission announced that a garrison would be stationed there to manage the city’s defence and to carry out military operations. Sansha only has a population of a thousand.
The move was in response to a law passed by Vietnam’s national assembly in June which reconfirmed Hanoi’s claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands. The two countries claimed that the other had violated its sovereignty. The Chinese Ministry of Defence has stated that it is carrying out patrols to protect the country’s sovereignty and its security interests.
In June the state owned Chinese National Oil Offshore Corporation invited international tenders for exploration rights in nine blocks in the South China Sea. All the blocks lie within the Vietnamese Economic Exclusion Zone. Vietnam had previously offered foreign companies the opportunity to prospect for hydrocarbons there. China claims ‘historic rights’ in the South China Sea. However the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that littoral states are not entitled to ‘historic rights’ on the high seas. China is simply ignoring this ruling. As a result it is unlikely that any of the major oil companies will bid for the blocks. However, small companies may do so in the hope of winning bigger contracts later.
The territorial conflict came to a head at the annual ASEAN regional forum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last month. China accused the Philippines of ‘making trouble’. It claimed that the Scarborough Shoal was and is part of its territory. Chinese fishing boats continue to fish off the Shoal protected by Chinese naval vessels. Then China dispatched 30 trawlers, under naval protection, to the Spratly islands.
At the Phnom Penh meeting, chaired by Cambodia, China made no effort to smooth relations. Indeed it deliberately split the organisation. Vietnam and the Philippines wanted the final communiqué to reflect how upset they were about the Scarborough Shoal dispute and the Chinese oil tenders. Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand supported them. Cambodia blocked this and claimed that ASEAN should not be used to further bilateral disputes. Needless to say Cambodia has close economic links to China. No compromise was reached and no final communiqué was issued – the first ever occurrence in 45 years.
Attempts to agree on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea have so far failed. ASEAN has been dealt a severe, perhaps mortal blow. Beijing does not wish to negotiate with groups of nations but bilaterally. China has objected to Vietnam wishing to involve the US in negotiations. Washington has declared that freedom of navigation is a priority.
The Dragon has decided to show its teeth. Does this reflect increasing military influence in Beijing in the run up to the Communist Party Congress in October? Deng Xiaoping’s policy of keeping one’s head down while one grows in strength is being jettisoned. Expect Beijing to become increasingly assertive towards its neighbours.