Hongkong: China's long game
in the South China Sea is slowly but surely reaping reawards and may
ensure its future hegemony.
by Philip Bowring
Hongkong: It is hard not to admire China's ability to play a
long game on the international stage even while domestic
policies are twisting about and instability is in the air.
The past few months have seen China take advantage of regional
disorder and economic preoccupations to make the biggest
strides since 1995 towards fulfilling its long term goal of
making turning its claims to the whole South China Sea into
reality. It has done so with remarkably little protest from
its neighbours, or indeed the major powers who have a vital
strategic interest in the sealanes.
Far from spurring regional solidarity against China's creeping
maritime hegemonism the moves appear to have exacerbated the
divisions within the Association of South East Asian Nations
(ASEAN). This is especially ironic as the expansion of ASEAN
to include Vietnam, Laos and Burma had been speeded up by a
desire of the maritime states that entry of Vietnam would add
to regional solidarity.
China has added massively to its structures on Mischief Reef,
the reef a mere 135 nautical miles off the Philippines which
it occupied in 1995. Though it pretends that these are being
built by and for fishermen, none of the neighbours doubt their
military function. China also appears to have stepped up its
naval presence, of frigates supply ships and a research
vessel, in the area which is well within the Philippines' 200-
mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Chinese move thus follows a pattern which dates back to
1992 -- offer to talk about the sea and "joint exploitation"
with the neighbours meanwhile gradually loudly proclaiming its
total sovreignty and creating new realities when opportunities
The opportunity has been provided by the neighbours' pre-
occupation with the economic crisis, the gratitude they are
supposed to feel for China's defence of currency stability,
and the change of government in the Manila. The Philippines is
not only militarily the weakest of the littoral states but
from China's point of view its offshore rocks and reefs are
the most valuable strategically. It is not far from small
offshore oil fields being exploited by the Philippines but
claimed by China, and 300 miles to the north are Scarborough
shoals where China has put down marker. These lie almost due
west of Subic Bay and close to the main shipping lane.
The Philippines was clearly undecided how to respond to the
latest Chinese expansion. The government was apparently aware
of developments long before it announced them. This limited
whatever value diplomatic and international protest might have
had. Some in the Philippines at least want a show of
resistance, and appeal to the United Nations. Others, notably
the Foreign Ministry says that policy towards China cannot be
driven just by this issue and particularly warn against closer
ties with Taiwan as a possible antidote. They favour more
talks and and mutual "confidence building measures".
President Estrada wants US involvement. But Manila knows that
it cannot expect any succour from its mututal defence pact
with the US, which has advised "restraint". The US proposal
for an international forum, including itself, is a non-
starter. Opposition from Malaysia and Vietnam makes it easy
for China to shrug it off.
ASEAN's position looks ever less meaningful. It still talks of
diplomatic solutions while Beijing creates facts. China
meanwhile refuses to talk on anything other than a bilateral
basis with littoral states, successfully brushing off attempts
at multilateral discussions. ASEAN's Plan of Action from its
December meeting in Hanoi calls for a council to resolve
potential conflicts. But resolving conflicting sea claims with
each other, even if possible, is marginal to the wider issue
of China's claim to everything.
Malaysia is currently especially keen on dialogue rather than
confrontation with China. It can afford that for now because
it has spent enough to build up its own air and naval
capability to deter China from the making moves in its claimed
area, the southernmost part of the South China Sea which is
also the richest in oil. Vietnam meanwhile has showed enough
willingness since 1992 to resist Chinese encroachments on its
southern waters that Beijing has turned its attentions to a
Philippines which for so long relied on the US presence that
it has scant way of defending itself.
But China will pick off each in turn, just as its grabbed the
Paracels from a divided Vietnam in 1974, and used force
against a diplomatically isolated Vietnam in 1979 and 1988 to
curtail its presence in the Spratlys.
China has come a long way in the South China Sea in the past
25 years. At this rate it will all be Chinese by 2050.
The long game will have paid off.
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