Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.
— Deng Xiaoping
Nothing in diplomacy is trivial.
— Zhou Enlai
It is almost an historical truism that whenever a major intervention in the geopolitical domain by a world power takes place, it is seldom, if ever, possible to get back to the status quo ante. Something on these lines has taken place in 2010 in South China Sea region, where China’s military and economic surge has reached proportions that could dwarf the combined might of the other countries having geographic contiguity to the South China Sea. The paper that follows dwells on some of these aspects.
At the conference held in November 2009 on the South China Sea imbroglio legal aspects relating to international, regional and country specific justifications of the claims made by various claimants to the islands under dispute, historical perspectives, geographical contiguity and the like were discussed threadbare by the participants and experts from around the world. Hence, while the issues already considered last November could be referred to in passing there would be no need to go over the same ground again. Since that time a new element has been introduced in the debate by China’s assertion that South China Sea represents its core interest at par with Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. Therefore, it would be in the fitness of things that the discussion at this conclave should concentrate on the new element that has been introduced.
While it is reassuring that at the recently concluded East Asia Summit in Hanoi, China and ASEAN participants agreed to resolve all pending matters amicably, the question cannot be glossed over because experience the world over has shown that countries can keep changing their positions depending upon the pulls and pressures obtaining at that point in time.
On July 21, 2008 a few weeks before the Olympics in Beijing a talk, Reappraising China was delivered in New Delhi to an international audience on behalf of Eco Monitors Society, a NGO dealing with the Demographic-Ecological interface. During that presentation a rhetorical question was posed, “As a world power is China going to play a benign role or will it flex its muscles as it goes along". After posing the question the speaker opined that China would be inclined to take the latter course, going by its past history. Why should that be the case?
Before even attempting to analyse as to why China suddenly decided to up the ante, to use an American cliché, by announcing that South China Sea was its core interest at par with its other three core interests defined as Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, it would be pertinent to see the chain reaction that has been set in motion following the announcement. China’s latest assertiveness in 2010, at the end of the first decade of the new century, having alarmed its neighbours and even the US amongst others, has led to intense scrutiny by China watchers all over the world. The main questions to be considered are:
- Is the new assertiveness premature, or does China really feel that it has ‘arrived’, so to say?
- Is the assertiveness part of a well thought out policy change by the Collegium of the CPC or is it a case of dissonance within?
- Is China merely testing the water at this stage to see how the world reacts?
Each of these aspects will be discussed in the ensuing paragraph, although they cannot be strictly compartmentalized due to overlapping factors.
While addressing the question of whether China’s assertiveness is premature or does it feel that it has arrived on the global scene as a player of the first rank, it may be recalled here that when Deng Xiaoping finally handed over power to his successors in the early 1990s he cautioned them that in dealing with the US, when the latter looked them in the eye it would be prudent for the Chinese leaders to look down for at least the next twenty five years, meaning thereby that his successors should not alarm the US and its allies before it had fully caught up with them. Following that advice would have taken China’s leadership to about 2015. To that extent it can be said that China has shown its hand earlier than envisaged by Deng. No doubt the country has made remarkable progress in a very short time. However, there would be many in China who would feel that their country still has a long way to go to catch up with the US and its allies.
It brings us to the next aspect relating to dissonance within, in case it is not a well thought out policy change by the CPC Collegium. It is not easy for outsiders to be privy to the inner happenings within the CPC Presidium. The assertiveness of the type that China has recently shown is not likely to have been pushed through by Mr. Hu Jintao, the Party Head solely of his own accord. He would have certainly consulted several of his colleagues, including the likely successor Xi Jinping, who it is supposed would be taking over from him in 2012. The latter would be likely to lean towards a more cautious approach in the country’s foreign policy, eschewing early assertiveness. Hence it would appear that either the PLA is forcing the issue or somebody in CMC is egging them on.
Whether China is merely testing the water by limited flexing of its muscles cannot be answered at this point of time. Should the country in the face of the near universal alarm following its assertion that the South China Sea were a ‘core interest’ at par with Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, pull back or change course in the near future it could be taken as an indication that it was testing the water. Opposition by its neighbours and the flurry of geopolitical readjustments that the announcement has led to could have longer term repercussions in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, making the action counterproductive for the Chinese government, no matter what course it adopts hereafter. Having shown its hand the apprehensions created in its neighbourhood cannot be easily set at rest. For them, China has allowed the mask of the much-touted peaceful rise to slip. It cannot be put back on. Chain reactions on the part of ASEAN and its other neighbours, fearful of Chinese intentions, have started. Status quo-ante in this regard can almost certainly be ruled out. The ripple effect that has been set in motion requires further elaboration.
Perhaps the earliest reaction was from the US. It was the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton who is reported to have said that the Chinese action in claiming the South China Sea as its exclusive preserve, or words to that effect was unacceptable. In the process the ASEAN members, many of whom were trying to remain equidistant between the giant northern neighbour and the US had a rethink and again felt that the US presence was a stabilizing factor in the region after all. As a result the US increased its interactions in the military sphere with Vietnam, Indonesia, The Philippines and others. It also reiterated that its mutual security pact with Japan extended to the islands under contention, which were the cause of the heightened tension between Japan and China, in Sept-Oct 2010, when a Chinese boat was captured in close proximity of the islands. India, which had its own troubles with its giant northern neighbour on the border issue and due to Chinese inroads into countries of the subcontinent, lost no time in greater interaction with South Korea, Japan and Vietnam for closer defence cooperation. Evidently, the common threat perception being China, Russia, in spite of many long-term deals for supply of oil and gas to China, also reportedly expressed a desire to reactivate the naval base of Cam Ranh Bay. USA and India were said to have professed interest in the same naval base in what was formerly South Vietnam. It is possible that press reports to this effect were speculative. It merely shows the anxiety that was caused all around.
As if the chain reaction set in motion by China’s series of assertive actions taken in 2010 were not enough many countries in the region decided to make higher outlays for speedier defence acquisitions; most notably submarines, warships, missiles and fighter aircraft. It is evident that an arms race in the region that has got a fillip is going to have deleterious consequences in the coming years and could militate against the restoration of harmony and goodwill between the contending parties.
A moot point that needs to be looked at is whether the Chinese assertion relating to South China Sea should be considered a regional issue or one that has implications for many other countries, perhaps the world at large. It needs to be remembered that the South China Sea is used by ships, both civil and military, from a large number of countries beyond the region. Large parts of the trade coming from Europe, Africa and Asia passes through the Malacca Straits bound for destinations beyond China or ASEAN. In any case, it is not an inland sea or restricted sea as in the case of, for example, Gulf of Tonkin, but a large expanse on which many countries are dependent for sea-borne trade and passage of their ships. Countries besides ASEAN that would boldly challenge China’s hegemonic designs on the South China Sea would almost certainly include South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, USA, the major European countries, Australia and India among others. Against this overwhelming opposition China may resile from, or modify its earlier declaration. It may even amplify the statement by saying that it is not opposed to the innocent passage of ships from other countries. Immediately the question would arise as to what in China’s view constitutes innocent passage. Would it view some countries with favour and others with disfavour. The excluded ones could very well turn around and question China’s right to be the arbiter, as many seem to have already done.
Going further, suppose China were to withdraw its declaration that South China Sea constituted its core interest at par with its other core interests that have been outlined earlier, i.e., Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. Would there automatically be a status quo ante following complete renunciation? The chances are that not many countries, especially those directly affected, would take China’s redefining its earlier position at face value. The suspicion that China had made a tactical retreat in the face of strong universal or near universal opposition would linger. The pace of acquisition of larger number and more sophisticated weapon systems by the concerned countries would most probably not slow down, lest China re-assert its earlier position at a more opportune moment in the future. The damage has been done. It would take many decades of peaceful co-existence and renunciation of further claims by China to make a dent in the trust deficit that has developed.
Another key element that needs to be looked at is whether China’s unilateralism in the present case could open a Pandora’s Box worldwide for similar claims by other nations around the world, using China’s assertion relating to South China Sea as a precedent. To carry the analogy further would India by citing China’s declaration related to the South China Sea make a similar declaration in relation to the Bay of Bengal. Many other examples of the same kind can be cited from around the world. Clearly it calls for moderation and respect for the global commons on the part of the larger countries that will shape the destiny of the world in the 21st century. China having become enormously powerful in just three short decades has a duty to the world and its own people to exercise extreme caution in its interactions with other countries. Its very position at practically the very top of the global pecking order automatically imposes upon it a duty to lead the world towards a more harmonious global order than that the world witnessed in the last century as well as the opening decade of the new century.