South China Sea: Is China baring its fangs?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 Mar , 2016

“The Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean”, so said Chinese Defence Minister Chi Haotian way back in 1994. However, China does not apply that same analogy to the East and South China Seas!! From the aggressive forays on the high seas further and further from the shores of Mainland China, it seems that it is laying claim to the entire ocean space right up to the shores of its neighbours?! Are These their lakes??

The genesis of the ‘China Threat Theory’ arises due to huge potential in the control of such a gigantic nation who see themselves as unique and ‘superior’.

China has a population which is more than that of all its neighbours (less India) put together. Its land mass (less India and Russia) is larger than all the neighbouring countries put together. China has always been a nation huge in size and population compared to its neighbours. A colossal population can be effectively mobilised in peace and war unleashing a huge potential. This is significant in term of the way in which power is constructed.

A huge population creates confidence and a sense of power amongst the leadership and people. Geography and the cultural uniqueness of a huge population objectively erect a wall which precludes others from continuous building of close contacts with such a civilisation, eliminating any cultural intimacy. Harbouring such specific cultural uniqueness makes ethnocentric feelings especially strong. Having common borders with different people and so many states assumed to be ‘culturally inferior’ heightened the uniqueness of Chinese culture and thus the feeling of cultural superiority.

The genesis of the ‘China Threat Theory’ arises due to this huge potential in the control of such a gigantic nation who see themselves as unique and ‘superior’.

The Chinese leadership has had to grapple with this image problem. One of the first initiatives of the Fourth Generation of the leadership of PRC headed by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao was to rebut the ‘Threat Theory’. Initially the term ‘peaceful rise’ was used in late 2003, it was reiterated by Wen Jaibao in an ASEAN meeting as well as during his visit to USA in an address to the students of Harvard University in December 2003. However the term proved controversial amongst the Chinese leadership as many thought that the word ‘rise’ could fuel perception that China is a threat to the established order. It did cause ripples in the East and South East Asian Region. At the 2004 session of the Boao Forum for Asia, Hu Jintao used instead the phrase ‘peaceful development’. This phrase has since been the definition generally used by senior officials with ‘peaceful rise’ rarely heard.

Having gained the trust and economic dependence of its neighbours, China seems to have consciously changed tack. Maybe they are pulling out pages from their mythology?…

It is indeed necessary to see what China had alluded to do under its thesis of ‘peaceful development’. First, China’s development depended upon and in return would contribute to world peace. Second, China would resort to peaceful means for development. Third, China’s development would rely more on its own resources and markets. Fourth, China is preparing for long-term process of hard work, even several generations, for economic prosperity. Fifth, even as China has achieved its economic development, it will not seek hegemony in the world or come out as a threat to any country.

As a manifestation of its benign intentions, Chinese government has conducted active diplomacy at four different levels: (1) Creating strategic partnerships with the second tier powers. It has signed such treaties with EU, Russia and India to strengthen these relationships and also to balance American power. (2) Promoting “good neighbour policy” in the Asia-Pacific Region. It has done so by increasing trade with the countries of this region and also let these countries enjoy trade surplus with China. (3) Seeking cooperation and avoiding confrontation with the US. The Chinese message is that it is a conservative power and has no intention of upsetting the status quo. (4) Neglecting Japan. With these three diplomatic initiatives it has sort to ignore Japan and occasionally show some toughness.

Having gained the trust and economic dependence of its neighbours, China seems to have consciously changed tack. Maybe they are pulling out pages from their mythology? They believe that

Chinese dragons are strongly associated with water. They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas. There are four major Dragon Kings, representing each of the Four Seas: the East Sea (corresponding to the East China Sea), the South Sea (corresponding to the South China Sea -SCS), the West Sea (sometimes seen as the Qinghai Lake and beyond), and the North Sea (sometimes seen as Lake Baikal). The King of Wuyue in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period was often known as the “Dragon King” or the “Sea Dragon King” because of his extensive hydro-engineering schemes which “tamed” the sea.

Since the days of conquering land territory for getting resources is over China realised that the only option available is to explore the sea bed for such resources and SCS fits that bill.

Ostensibly, the recent developments in the South China Sea seem to stem from the mythological tales. China has claimed that its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation. China was a relative latecomer in occupying some of the disputed islands in the 1980s. There was little tension in the area as other claimant countries had also occupied some islands and the activities were generally deemed low key.

However, by 2014, China was actively reclaiming land, building artificial islands on disputed rocks and atolls to set up military and civilian facilities. This activity was accompanied by Chinese vessels entering disputed waters and harassing fishing boats and other craft of coastal nations, signalling that the area was an exclusive zone of China. Both the US and China want to have naval superiority in the SCS, if not the entire Pacific. For China, this is because historically its strategic weakness has been here, where foreign vessels traversed before landing on and subduing the mainland. For the US, it is a matter of retaining its advantage. The deployment of surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, a sub-set in the Paracel group, does evince an intention moving away from the benign “peaceful development” to the aggressive “China rising” agenda. In fact China’s actions belie their claim of “peaceful development”.

The move by China in the SCS indicates a sense of desperation to secure areas for resources that it requires to maintain an economic growth that will keep its restive population busy. It is therefore driven by internal domestic compulsions. It is a handy political tool to generate aggressive nationalism. Employed in conjunction with the propaganda narrative of  “Century of Humiliation” the Communist Party can recreate the scenarios when the colonial powers arrived on the shores of China and subdued it.

Unfortunately, India can only stand on the sidelines and helplessly see the region being re-contoured.

Since the days of conquering land territory for getting resources is over China realised that the only option available is to explore the sea bed for such resources and SCS fits that bill. In a way China is also testing the limit to which US will go with its “pivot to Asia” strategy. Is China prepared to risk a conflict or will go to the brink and pull back? Chinese leadership have often tested waters through their brinkmanship. It’s a question of who blinks first. It’s the first step in altering of the global status quo which China had claimed to avoid. If the US blinks first, then China emerges as the new hegemon. This will generate a brusque strategic dynamic in the Region. The neighbouring countries would experience the modern day ‘sino-centric’ tributary system of Imperial China as the neo-Asian order. To the extent foreign policy of all these tributary states will be decided in Beijing. Its ‘One Road One Belt’ initiative will be easily implemented in these changed circumstances.

Unfortunately, India can only stand on the sidelines and helplessly see the region being re-contoured. With a measly capital budget for defence acquisitions, the Defence Procurement Procedures under constant revision and the transformation to ‘Make in India’ as the norm, India will remain a mediocre conventional defensive military power till at least 2030. The Defence Minister’s desire for a “lean and mean” force is just an expression of an opinion without any substance or vision. If India has different national priorities then, like Deng Xiaoping formalised the ‘Four Modernisations’ with defence being given the fourth priority, India needs to state it in clear terms and work towards an economic agenda, scientific research and development and agriculture reform  to form a strong base before any major military modernisation is undertaken. India has already lost four decades in enunciating such a concept if it does venture to state it at all.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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2 thoughts on “South China Sea: Is China baring its fangs?

  1. its become very hard for india to make strategy o handle china
    to be hard to be soft to be ignorant to be watchful ?
    to be hard then fear of war do ur political and army think it in reality
    it very much predictable that we wont our self initiate any engagement
    its policy of being passive and watchful that is running in to bureaucracy what are the outcome of such policy what history says
    why are we happy and celebrating retreated china’s 3 week long incursion in 2013 as great matured diplomacy win
    is it so?
    are ours action inadequate why are we making own commitment of self restrain
    can we patrol those area that we claim to be ours
    do we have such strength
    why cant we give tit for tat
    why cant be enter their control area as they do
    why we follow policy of pritviraj chaun
    why we don’t follow the policy to ready to win and lose
    see that will make a peace for long time
    instead of wasting nation so much valuable person and time
    we should have diplomacy that see our profit
    china is like bullying around neighbor to flex it muscle
    its over ambition will threaten the peace of other country which he finds to be weak
    india should make no-tolerance policy towards border issue we should forget the timid approach of reasoning that its faulty perception of china giving rise to incursion we should firmly say that its their deliberate act and address should be made at highest level
    what ever army u have we will defend our home land at any cost that you will surely pay
    and tell them to stop cat and mouse game if u think that its ur land come and fight or go and sit in your home
    if india has to solve this issue or other issue with pakistan we have to first aggravate it then solution will come.
    this policy was of shivaji that lead aurangazeb to come to deccan and spend valuable time , resource and life . see china want be great power it should respect india other wise it will be there responsibility india alliance with usa
    as we no enmy enmy is freind

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