China faces up to Asia's sea change

SCMP June 5 2011

Philip Bowring

China has been trying hard to reverse the Asian diplomatic setback that it inflicted on itself last year. But its efforts to undo the damage, to avoid confrontations, to soften its language, and to engage with the US to re-emphasise its 'peaceful rise', are now running against a changed tide.

Remember 2010 as the year when an overly aggressive stance towards Vietnam over the South China Sea enabled Hanoi, as host, to get the matter back not only onto Asean's agenda; it also encouraged the US to implicitly support the Southeast Asian countries by asserting its own interest in the freedom of that sea.

And remember 2010 as a year when China unnecessarily riled India over border issues, South Korea over Beijing's failure to criticise Pyongyang's sinking of the Cheonan corvette and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, Tokyo over its use of a Chinese fishing vessel to induce a spat with Japan in the East China Sea, and many more with its covert cyberwar against foreign critics.

Chinese leaders, as well as diplomats, have been at pains to reverse these setbacks, with President Hu Jintao's visit to the United States in January followed by the visit by the People's Liberation Army's chief of staff to the US last month, high-profile offers of help and sympathy to tsunami-hit Japan, and a stream of foreign visits by the ever-smiling Premier Wen Jiabao.

However, recent informal meetings of Asian policymakers, think tanks and military men with their US counterparts and other foreign interlocutors make it clear that 2010 has made them all think not only about how to engage with China, but also to stand their ground.

No longer is the rest of Asia simply sitting back and enjoying the benefits of China's economic growth. No longer are they thinking so much of the US as an economic cripple and declining military power but as a still very powerful and mostly benign force. Despite US tendencies to arrogance and overreach, it has many more friends than China.

China faces some real dilemmas. Soon - probably this year - its first aircraft carrier, acquired as a shell from Ukraine in 1998, will be in service, most likely from a South China Sea base and showing the flag into the Pacific and Indian oceans. It stands as a testament to China's rise but a very visible worry for neighbours. Do they cower or co-ordinate?

China's acquisition of new weapons systems, including anti-ship missiles, may be shifting the balance of military power - but do not imagine that technically advanced Japan and South Korea are arming themselves to fight Pyongyang rather than in reaction to China.

Nor does China's diplomatic need to avoid clashes with South China Sea neighbours mean that they won't happen, as shown by last week's Chinese harassment of a Vietnamese seismic exploration vessel 120 kilometres off the south central coast of Vietnam - well within what most regard as Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. With or without Beijing's prompting, Chinese forces remain keen to flex their muscles, at least against smaller neighbours - the Philippines, as well as Vietnam.

The US will need much more trimming of its defence spending after the Iraq and Afghan ventures. But it is unlikely to weaken its Pacific command's naval and air capability, given the renewed importance attached to the region. Meanwhile, US co-operation with Japan, Australia and South Korea has been enhanced. US policy is to be as polite as possible to China, engage in dialogue with its military, not comment on island disputes but stand very firm on the principle of freedom of navigation as vital to regional and world commerce.

This suits almost all the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, not least Vietnam, which is strengthening its ties with the US military, and Malaysia - despite Kuala Lumpur's claim that China is co-operating on the sea issue.

The combined military capabilities of these states remain modest, and some of their acquisitions - for example, submarines of little use in shallow South China Sea waters - seem mostly for show. Nonetheless, in Asean discussions today, there is now less relative emphasis on economic co-operation, the dominant theme of the past decade, than there is on strategic issues.

Significantly too, Indonesia, which previously seemed to regard Asean as of scant importance given that it had found a presence at the Group of 20 countries, has now put Asean back to the forefront of policy. Indonesia matters not because of its modest naval capability but because of its size, geography and tradition of wide-ranging links with other developing countries.

India, too, is seen more at East Asian gatherings. So what can be seen as a Chinese diplomatic success in one direction is a liability in another. Beijing's recent effusive hosting of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was an uncomfortable reminder to the US of the fragility of its relationship with that troubled nation. But Gilani's request to China to build a naval base that China could use at Gwadar, in the far west of Pakistan, made India sit up. Gilani was overstating the significance of any deal, so China will not bless him for making its power-projection aims seem greater than they are. But it is further evidence that claims of a 'peaceful rise' are hard to restore. The genie of China's massive investment in sophisticated, game-changing weaponry and port building is out of the bottle and cannot be put back.







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