China’s Interest in the South China Sea
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Issue Vol. 32.2 Apr-Jun 2017 | Date : 26 Aug , 2017

The South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands

China is the largest country in the region in terms of economic strength, military might and land area. Since 2013, China has begun trying to alter the status quo in its neighbourhood, views the new US administration’s policies as intended to retard its ambitions. While China’s responses have been measured and deliberate, it has made clear it will not yield sovereignty over the South China Sea. China has built airstrips and more recently, missile emplacements on the islands in the South China Sea, moved missiles to Hainan and in late February 2017, announced that it is constructing environment monitoring stations on the Scarborough Reef.

A watershed event in contemporary Chinese politics is the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in November 2012…

Dominance of the South China Sea is not merely a territorial issue for China. It regards it as a major step towards recognition as an unrivalled Asia-Pacific power that can arbitrate on global and regional issues along with the US. It is a strategic goal towards which Beijing is moving with deliberation and one which Beijing will not easily resile from. Though officially unstated, Beijing has given adequate indications of this ambition especially by persistently urging the US to accept a “new type of big power relations” with Beijing. Designed to prevent a deterioration in the Sino-US bilateral relationship, this “new type of big power relations”, which US President Trump declined to endorse at the Summit this April, also seeks to provide an arrangement whereby Washington and Beijing can together arbitrate on issues of global and regional concern.

After the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) announced its far reaching and unambiguous decision on the dispute in July 2016, the South China Sea issue again came to prominence at the Summit between Xi Jinping and Trump on April 06-07, 2017, at the Mar-a-Lago club resort in Florida. The Summit confirmed that the issue remains a potentially contentious one between the US and China. There was no agreement between the two leaders on the issue. In a statement after the Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China’s positions on the South China Sea. Briefing journalists the same day, US Secretary of State Tillerson made the divergence in the positions of the two sides on the South China and East China Seas apparent. Tillerson said there had been ‘candid’ discussions on regional and maritime security, and that US President Trump had noted the “importance of adherence to international norms in the East and South China Sea and to previous statements on non-militarisation”.

China’s quest for becoming a global maritime power began in 1979 when Deng Xiaoping, handpicked Rear Admiral Liu Huaqing, a friend and then the senior-most officer of PLA Navy to modernise China’s Navy. Liu Huaqing laid the foundation for a modern PLA Navy, built the Navy officer corps and formulated a doctrine. With this, Deng Xiaoping had begun the process of shifting the mindset of China’s civilian and military leaders from that of a continental land power to that of a maritime power. It is also since this time that China’s leaders began viewing the South China Sea and Indian Ocean as a continuum. Occasional references began appearing in China’s official media since the 1980s, when China questioned the name ‘Indian Ocean’ and asserting that just because it was named the Indian Ocean it was not “India’s lake”!

There have been regular assertions of sovereignty by Beijing over the South China Sea…

A watershed event in contemporary Chinese politics is the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in November 2012. The 18th Party Congress approved China’s goal of becoming a global maritime power along with the vision of a ‘China Dream’ articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The ‘China Dream’ includes the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. “Rejuvenation” is a muscular aspiration which has been adopted by the entire Party and implies the restoration to China of its self-perceived rightful international status and recovery of all its territories. “Recovering” sovereignty over the South China Sea is part of this. Pertinent in this context are the new passports published by China in 2012, which depict the extent of its claimed territories, including in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Andaman Islands.

China has also meanwhile assiduously built a case using propaganda and tenuous legal arguments to lay claim over at least “three million square kilometres” of the South China Sea as Chinese maritime territory. These waters have been the cockpit of tension since at least 1974, when clashes first occurred between China and South Vietnam and China seized control of the Paracel Islands.

Around 2010-11, China’s State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who was also China’s Special Envoy for negotiations with the US, Russia and India, described the South China Sea as a ‘core national interest’ for China. The remark indicated that China felt ready to elevate the issue to the same level as those of Tibet and Taiwan. Nonetheless, Chinese President Hu Jintao avoided direct confrontation when he visited the US in January 2011, and side-stepped categorising the South China Sea as one of China’s ‘core interests’.

China’s leadership, however, remains intent on restricting the scope of activity of the US and other powers in Asia-Pacific waters and its ambition is to dominate at least the area within the ‘first Island chain’, which is bounded between the Chinese mainland up to Southern Japan along the Philippines and down to Brunei and Vietnam.

The world’s fastest growing region, namely the Indo-Pacific, will be important to the Trump Administration and the US-China relationship is the most important and complex…

Beijing’s determination was underscored by China’s Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, while speaking to a US audience in Washington in June 2014. He frankly acknowledged that, “the United States is a powerful and very strong country, the most powerful and strongest in the world and will remain so for many, many years to come”. But referring to the interests of both countries in the Asia Pacific, he asserted that Beijing is not about to withdraw its maritime territorial claims. He said the “United States’ presence, interests and influential role in the Asia Pacific is fully and widely recognised” and that China welcomes a “constructive role by the United States in the region”. But he added that, “China is also a Pacific country and China is also an Asian country.

Geographically, China is situated in the centre of the Asian continent. And we have been here for centuries, perhaps a little bit longer than the whole history of the United States. So I think it may be fair to say that neither Chinese nor Americans are aliens from Mars in the Asia Pacific, but we are somehow more indigenous than you are”. He warned that “any attempt to manage or manipulate the regional affairs at the expense of China’s legitimate interests in the region, cannot be justified, and would indeed be detrimental to the stability and prosperity of the entire region, and eventually will serve nobody’s interests.” He concluded with the observation that the US and China should work together for peace in the Asia-Pacific.

There have been regular assertions of sovereignty by Beijing over the South China Sea. After the Eleventh National People’s Congress in Beijing in March 2011, a Xinhua news agency despatch reiterated that China’s maritime resources extended over three million square kilometres of offshore waters. In 2016, one Chinese Navy Admiral remarked at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that since it is called the “South China Sea” it is China’s sea! Publicising its resolve to enforce its claim, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) re-crafted its recruitment song in 2015 to include specific lengthy references to the South China Sea, the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and ‘One Belt, One Road’. It asserts that the PLA Navy will not give up the “tiniest bit of territory” claimed in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was quoted by Reuters as saying on June 27, 2015, that, “One thousand years ago China was a large sea-faring nation. So of course, China was the first country to discover, use and administer the Nansha Islands.

Taiwan – an issue of national ‘core concern’ for Beijing – came into focus at this juncture when the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is yet to become clear…

China’s demands of sovereignty over the Nansha Islands have not expanded and neither will they shrink. Otherwise we would not be able to face our forefathers and ancestors.” Wang Yi added that “China could not face its children and grandchildren if the gradual and incremental invasion of China’s sovereignty and encroachment on China’s interests was allowed to continue.”

The installation of Donald Trump as the 45th US President upset the routine tenor of international relations and geo-political equations – already in a state of flux – which are poised to potentially change again. Trump has signalled that the priorities of the US will no longer be the same as it has for the past few decades and that the US could, in fact, become more inward looking with the focus on the domestic economy. He had criticised China throughout the election campaign calling it a currency manipulator, demanding that the trade deficit be wiped out, and asserting that China’s expansion in the South China Sea be stopped. Nonetheless, the world’s fastest growing region, namely the Indo-Pacific, will be important to the Trump Administration and the US-China relationship is the most important and complex relationship of those in the Indo-Pacific.

Taiwan – an issue of national ‘core concern’ for Beijing – came into focus at this juncture when the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is yet to become clear and there is uncertainty about the future trend of Sino-US relations. US President Donald Trump’s unprecedented 10-minute telephone conversation on December 02, with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, which broke with 40 years of ambiguity retained by successive US administrations, and his subsequent tweets virtually questioning the “One China policy” particularly imposed fresh, new tension in Sino-US relations. The earlier anticipation in Beijing of doing a deal with Trump quickly gave way to one of nervousness. The comments by Rex Tillerson at the US Congressional Committee hearing for his confirmation as US Secretary of State, that the US will not allow China’s military expansion in the South China, added to the unease of Chinese officials.

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After this rocky start to the US-China relationship occasioned by the US President Trump’s telephone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and his subsequent tweet, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump had a lengthy, “cordial” conversation – their first, on February 10, 2017. In an indirect reference to the earlier tension and indicating some thaw in relations, China’s official news agency Xinhua specifically reported Trump as saying he, “fully understands the high significance of the US government’s pursuit of the One-China policy, adding that the US government adheres to the one-China policy”. Xi Jinping replied that “he appreciated Trump’s stressing that the US government adheres to the One-China policy, adding that the policy is the political basis of China-US relations.” The press release from the US President’s office was, however, careful to clarify that the reference to the ‘One-China policy’ had been included “at the request” of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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