PRC’s neighbors fret as it gears up to expand by water
Once again, China is in an expansionist mood—after turning inward for 500 years. And its immediate goal is to colonize the South China Sea, which is also Southeast Asia’s maritime heartland.
Already China is building airstrips and deploying oil rigs to get at our great inland sea’s bounty of fish, hydrocarbons and minerals. It’s even reclaiming disputed shallows to turn barren rocks into habitable islets.
After planting a giant oil drilling platform on waters claimed by Vietnam, China deployed smaller oil rigs on similarly disputed waters. Meanwhile its gunboats chase away Filipino fishermen from their traditional grounds on Scarborough Shoal, off western Luzon.
“China does not want all of the South China rule ensue. The usual outcome was a kind of suzerainty—the ritual acknowledgment of Chinese control by an internally autonomous state.
Parts of north Vietnam were a province of China from 111 B.C. until A.D. 907. It was through a thousand years of struggle against Chinese overlordship that the Vietnamese forged their nationhood.
Traditionally, Chinese imperial expansion has taken place overland. This time, it’s going to be by water. Deng Xiaoping’s economic and political reforms are turning China into a maritime power. Manufacturing for export has concentrated both economic and population growth on China’s vulnerable coastal regions.
A military necessity
For the first time since the epic voyages in the early 1400s of the eunuch admiral, Zheng He, China is building a blue-water navy. And for today’s China—still acutely aware of historical hurts, while savoring its rise to first-rank global power—control of the China Sea is a military necessity.
Essentially, China needs to achieve defense indepth—to prevent its coastal heartland from being exposed to seaborne attack.
It needs to enable the forces defending its 18,000-kilometer coastline to fall back to a succession of prepared positions without being overrun or outflanked.
China’s rivals may draw up every legal proof of the veracity of their claims and bring their cases before every available international court. It will all come to naught. I don’t think even the Chinese buy their preposterous nine-dash line.
In the end, it will all come down to the strong doing what they have the power to do and the weak accepting what they must accept.
Vietnam likely flashpoint
China’s plan to seed oil drilling platforms in various parts of the South China Sea “invites” its Southeast Asian adversaries to make the first overt, hostile move. Meanwhile, Beijing is creating facts on the ground. In 2012, it created an administrative body on Hainan Island to oversee its South China Sea “territories.”
My immediate fear is of a flare-up of hostilities on the South China Sea; and I fear it is with Vietnam that China’s first clash with Southeast Asia is likely to occur.
In recent years, the two have twice fought over their rival South China Sea claims—over the Paracels in 1974 and over the Spratlys in 1988.
More grievously, the Chinese in February 1979 launched a heavy offensive to “punish” Vietnam for invading Cambodia in the previous year—a move Beijing saw as a strategic step (with the USSR’s blessings) toward unifying peninsular Southeast Asia into an Indochinese Federation under Hanoi’s wing.
America’s staying power the key
Meanwhile Asean has proved itself unable to deal with Beijing as a collective. Yet, among the claimants, Hanoi alone has military power enough to make Beijing pause. Hence the engaged regional states have fallen back on East Asia’s major powers.
A conservative Tokyo seeking an excuse to rearm freely offers its help; and President Aquino seems just as eager to take it up. Even Canberra seems to be realizing it cannot shy away from the China Sea troubles through a policy of armed neutrality. Eventually it will all come down to America’s staying power in East Asia and the West Pacific.