It’s called the “South China Sea” and China wants everyone to recognize it just that way. There is no question in Beijing’s official mind that this body of water is entirely within Chinese sovereignty. The problem is that Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan all have claims to a portion of that immense body of water by virtue of the fact that portions of their countries are bordered by that sea. This is to say nothing of the competing claims over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The Chinese attitude is that these are all spurious claims and only they — and their navy and air force — can lawfully operate on, in, and above these, up till now, international waters. Everyone else should get their permission. By the way, this assertion is now extended to include the East China Sea, much to the consternation of Japan.
Admiral Robert Willard, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, in most diplomatic terms characterized the increasingly assertive Chinese claims to these waters and islands in the region as “generating increasing concern broadly across the region and require address.” When you have the firepower available to Admiral Willard you can afford to speak that softly. An Indian Navy official wishing to remain anonymous responded to a Chinese warship’s demand that an Indian assault vessel visiting Vietnam identify itself. He put the matter in more stark terms: “Any navy in the world has full freedom to transit through these waters or high seas [South China Sea]. For any country to proclaim ownership or question the right of passage by any other nation is unacceptable.”
The Vietnamese were furious over the incident but allowed foreign diplomats to muster the appropriate aggressive tone without comment from Hanoi. There was no question in Vietnamese diplomatic circles that what had happened was a clear challenge by the Chinese not only to New Delhi and Hanoi but to all who enter their pond without notification.
The American/Chinese military exchanges are very carefully managed and Admiral Willard’s attendance at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing was noteworthy as the first military bilateral contact on an upper level since China suspended such meetings in January 2011 after U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. During this carefully maintained and ostentatious non-contact, there has been a flurry of Chinese publicity over its defense capability.
Beijing’s space program along with its shore-based, anti-ship intermediate missile development has brought significant comment. A prototype of an advanced stealth jet fighter has been rolled out. Most importantly, the beginning of sea trials was announced for the now reconstructed Soviet era aircraft carrier obtained from Ukraine in 2007. Supposedly this remodeled ship will be the centerpiece of a blue water Chinese Navy battle group within several years.
The PLA Navy has used every occasion to utilize the American call for “transparency” to boost its own profile. As quoted nearly a year ago, Tang Jianqun, a military expert at the China Institute of International Studies, said, “For China, transparency means transparency of strategy, not of operational detail.” Frankly, some would say that is an overly convenient definition.
Countering the Chinese attempt to dominate the whole of the South China Sea is Vietnam’s decision to reopen the Cam Ranh Bay base to foreign naval vessels. Engineering efforts with Russian aid began this past summer to accommodate visiting ships. It’s rumored in Hanoi that this means visits by both Russian and U.S. vessels. There’s been no public announcement, but the Chinese naval intelligence attachés certainly can catch the drift.
Meanwhile the economic aspects of China’s ambitions in the South China Sea proceed apace. Continuing conflict exists over the various areas of oil and gas deposits. Fishing rights and key trade routes are also high on the list of contested issues. In addition to these very important economic matters is the highly strategic value to China of the control of this immense body of water that borders so much of its mainland. Of course the same could be said about the other countries in this multi-party contest; but such arguments do not register with Beijing at all.
Since the end of the war with Japan in 1945 the United States Navy and its allies have maintained a de facto authority over the Pacific. China has given notice that it does not accept any sense of this Pax Americana and implicitly intends to challenge the concept through its declared naval buildup. The result of this is that the other nations of the South and East China Seas have to take into strategic consideration existing and future Chinese ambitions even while deferring to the traditional predominant role of the U.S. Navy.
In other words, the South and East Asian nations are asking themselves, “Will the big dog of today still be the big dog tomorrow? And how far away is tomorrow?”