Continued from “Stridently Aggressive Designs”
China’s Bid to Redefine World Order Part - IV
China’s seemingly endless territorial claims against other countries of Asia are one of the ineluctable realities of international relations in the foreseeable future. At present, China’s main frontline opponents in the South China Sea are Vietnam and the Philippines. Analysts in both countries have grave misgivings that following the time-honed Chinese proverb that one kills a chicken to scare the monkeys, Beijing will seek to make an example of either of them.
The question thus boils down to which neighbor will serve as the sacrificial chicken; which country China will bully and humiliate as a lesson to other neighbors that resistance is futile and decisive help from the USA is unlikely to come − the only county that China still takes seriously.
Today, Vietnam is the only country in the region that seeks to impose some serious limits on China’s maritime ambitions but does not have a defense agreement with the United States. This makes it, therefore, a vulnerable target. On the other hand, even if it is scarcely more than one-thirtieth of China’s size, Vietnam isn’t a soft nut to crack. It has a redoubtable martial culture as the United States discovered to its long-lasting embarrassment, in the 1960s. Remember the Vietnam War and the far-from-glorious exit the US made?
The Chinese, too, should be familiar with Vietnam’s disposition toward resistance. It had repelled a Chinese invasion of the country’s northern borderlands in 1979, leaving as many as 20,000 Chinese soldiers dead. This incident, however, has long since been censored out of China’s national consciousness. And just as they did at the beginning of that painstakingly forgotten war, outlets of the Chinese state media have been suggesting the need of giving Vietnam “a lesson it deserves,” i.e., to pay “an unaffordable price.”
Today, even if both the countries are notionally ideological allies − i.e., so-called communists − their relationships through the centuries have witnessed many waves of invasion and subjugation. This historical past has deeply colored the attitudes of each toward the other. “Invasion is in their blood, and resistance is in our blood” is how, writing in New York Times, a Vietnamese political analyst summed up the countries’ two millennia of bitterly shared history.
Vietnam has invariably found unconventional means to overcome bigger and more heavily armed adversaries. This history of defying the odds has fired a mood of self-confidence in Hanoi which, according to some analyst, almost smacks of over-confidence in the context of China’s extensive militarization.
To enable it to repulse any possible naval action by China, Hanoi recently took delivery of two Russian-built, Kilo-class submarines − four more are reportedly on the way. That a country of the size of Vietnam should go in for such expensive defense purchase underscores Vietnamese naval preparedness in order to raise the cost of Chinese aggression to levels unaffordable even to China.
All said Vietnam has to weigh its response to Chinese provocations with great care, given the two countries’ increasing economic integration. In 2012, at a particularly tense moment with Manila, China suspended imports of bananas from the Philippines. This caused huge quantities of the crop to rot in the docks. Possible long-term economic consequences have to be reckoned with if and when, Vietnam takes a hard stand vis-à-vis the Chinese stance.
Many Western analysts view China’s approach in the Pacific as a sort of a carefully calibrated thrust. It aims at Chinese presence and de facto Chinese rights in disputed areas. It is based on gradually building, in a series of provocations that are individually small enough to make forceful resistance politically difficult. However, collectively, it establishes precedents and, over time, ominous norms. The Chinese, in fact, have a special name for this approach: the cabbage strategy. An area is slowly surrounded by individual “leaves” − a fishing boat here, a coast-guard vessel there − until it’s wrapped in layers, like a cabbage. If you’re a non-vegetarian you may like to call it “Salami slicing”.
Surely the Chinese would be satisfied if Vietnam simply accepted their slow expansion of maritime rights and territory. But the tempo and tenor of China’s recent actions suggest that Beijing might now also be happy with a contest of strength against Hanoi. Chinese would provoke Vietnam to take an initiative whereby it is perceived as the country that struck first. This is exactly what they did making a fool of Jawaharlal Nehru who launched upon a “forward posts” policy that made it appear that India provoked the Chinese action in 1962. Remember how Neville Maxwell named his book India’s China War?
This, exactly, is how China is planning to position its oil rig in the disputed area. It is backed by an armada of ships. It would help legitimize Chinese claims if Vietnam did nothing, and would offer an opportunity to crush the Vietnamese resistance in a limited operation. Thereafter China certainly will go ahead to impose crippling economic sanctions against Hanoi.
And should the Vietnamese resistance crumble Beijing will work for a regime change in Hanoi.
Showdown with Japan
A few hundred miles to the north of the Philippines, China is virtually in a showdown with Japan over a small and until recently obscure group of barren islands and rocks known in Japanese as the Senkakus. These islands have been under Tokyo’s uncontested control from their annexation by Japan in 1895 until its defeat in World War II. Despite the seeming insignificance of the territory − there is hardly any human habitation there like Aksai Chin − this struggle has much higher stakes than the Chinese skirmishes with others.
It is here that the future of East Asia may well be determined. The region has never peacefully accommodated the coexistence of two major Asian powers, and as China pursues world-power status, Japan has made clear its intention to constrain it. The long Japanese archipelago keeps China bottled up in coastal waters. Control of the Senkaku Islands is seen in Beijing as a key to gaining direct, unfettered access to the open ocean. It could, moreover, as well be a stepping stone toward taking over Taiwan, which in fact, has been the long-term aim of Beijing for decades.
China did not contest Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus, which it calls the Diaoyu Islands, until 1971, when the United States, relinquishing the last vestiges of its occupation of the Japanese archipelago, returned the islands to Tokyo’s jurisdiction. In what is unlikely to be a coincidence, just two years before China began making its claims, the United Nations published the results of a geophysical survey of the area, mentioning therein that “the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in the world.” This obviously whetted China’s territorial appetite.
In 1978, after several years of sporadic verbal jaw jaw, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping told his Japanese counterpart that the two countries should defer the question of ownership of the islands to “a future generation.” Tensions resurfaced sharply in 2010, 13 years after Deng’s death, when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese coast-guard vessel in nearby waters. Japan’s arrest of the captain unleashed nationalist passions in China.
Ever since, China has frequently sent coast-guard ships into the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters surrounding the Senkakus. This is indeed a blunt challenge to Japanese authority. From time to time, the militaries of the two countries directly engaged each other. In December 2012, three months after the Japanese government nationalized some of the Senkakus (the land had previously been owned by a Japanese citizen), a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft entered the airspace above the islands. This blatant act prompted Japan to scramble fighter jets from nearby Okinawa. Earlier in June military aircraft of the two countries reportedly flew within as little as 100 feet of each other above the disputed waters. These were perilous maneuvers for which each side blamed the other.
When asked, in a poll conducted this summer, how the territorial dispute should be resolved, 64 percent of Chinese respondents said China should “strengthen its effective control” over the territory. More than half said they expected a military conflict with Japan at some point in the future, although only 11 percent expected it within the next few years.
In December 2012, Japan returned to power its most nationalistic prime minister in a generation, Shinzo Abe, who increased Japanese defense spending for the first time in years and promised to revise the Gen, MacArthur-inspired constitution, which bans the use of force in disputes, in order to legally field a national army. Abe and many of his conservative associates have shown a penchant for inflaming Chinese passions by seeming to minimize Japanese atrocities during World War II, such as the sexual enslavement of Chinese women by the Japanese army. Abe has a powerful personal connection to this ugly history, from which he has never distanced himself: his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a top civilian official in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Last December, he became the first serving Japanese prime minister in years to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted Japanese war criminals are commemorated. Abe’s unapologetic relationship with this history has made top-level diplomacy with China almost impossible.
Abe has spoken openly about standing up to China. In one of his first big defense measures, he approved the creation of a force modeled after the U.S. Marines. Tokyo has even gotten into the budding regional aircraft-carrier race, by building and recently commissioning its own light aircraft carrier, the Izumo, which at present deploys only helicopters. Japan has also announced plans to increase its fleet of highly advanced submarines. Eyebrows were raised in Washington last year when it was reported that Japan might shoot down any Chinese drones violating its airspace.
Japan’s justification for building its military muscle by strengthening its armed forces and establishing its outpost, is that sooner or later China will try to take the Senkakus by force. Among other benefits, control of the islands would give China a platform for striking American ships setting out from bases in Okinawa, preventing them from approaching China or from intervening in a conflict over control of Taiwan, which is located nearby.
All these preparations on the part of Japan are to ensure that it won’t ever be the sacrificial chicken that Beijing may like to kill to scare other monkeys of the region.
We in India cannot remain passive spectators to all these ongoing military maneuvers and counter-maneuvers. No one can hazard a guess as to when it could it be our turn to face Chinese military muscle.
Continued to “Taking on Goliath — Armor-and-Shield vs. Staff-and-Sling”