China’s recently concluded Belt and Road Forum (BRF)—the second (2019) following the first (2017)—has hogged limelight and stoked debate on its virtue and vice alike. The din surrounding the BRF has been so loud that it glosses key strategic moves in Asia. On April 24, a day before the BRF, China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning conducted a combat drill in the East China Sea with ‘anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare training’. In tandem, the US announced that it will unveil a new Indo-Pacific strategy at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue (May 31-June 2, in Singapore). China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) optimism has not detracted US policy pragmatism about China nor dented China’s global ambitions—including that on the high seas. Despite the best intents of China’s economic diplomacy, is the US steadily upping the game to counter China?
At the BRI Summit, China came clean unveiling the old BRI in a new avatar, repackaged as Green BRI (green investments, green projects) and Clean BRI (corruption free, transparent and level-playing field where Chinese and non-Chinese companies can compete). This honed China’s ‘peaceful rise’ as a conscientious global player whose trillions of forex surplus would be used for greater common good. The BRI also received copious press devoted to the recent rethinking by American researchers that China may not be a loan shark (given that several of its loans have sunk, with no or little payback). Yet the BRF sounded out the political fracture—between those who attended (5,000 participants from 150 countries and leaders from 36 countries) and those who didn’t (among others, US, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea).
US actions can be explained in the context that China is not helping its own case. China’s live drills in the East China Sea and China’s actions in the 3.5 million square km South China Sea have been controversial, to say the least.
Historically, China was not a great naval power in the manner of the La Royale (French Navy, 17th century) or the Royal Navy (UK Navy, 16th century). To be fair, the 15th century Ming dynasty explorer—the Muslim eunuch Zheng He’s seven voyages reaching the Horn of Africa and Persian Gulf are famed. But rather than naval ships, China’s merchant ships, junks and dhows traced their footprint on the economy, demography and culture in South East Asia with migration, trade and exchange.
But in the last decades as China has become richer, there has been a resurgence of nationalism that is drifting China back to history citing historical not legal claims in the seas—the reefs, atolls, islets and islands of the East China Sea and South China Sea. The Chinese want to escape being a continental power and the First Island Chain (East Asian Coastline) with the Second Island Chain and Third Island Chain under the US umbrella.
But it’s how China is going about it, that has become contentious. In the East China Sea, the dispute is between China and Japan, but in the South China Sea, there are other claimants including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei.
China’s drills in the East China Sea are one thing between Japan and China, but in the South China Sea with several claimants, China’s actions are being perceived as belligerent. China’s reclamation efforts and land acquisition have resulted in artificial islands. Reports and satellite images suggest military fortification and military installations, surveillance aircraft, guided missile destroyers and airport runways. China-watchers say China is consolidating a ‘strategic triangle’ in the seas. In fact, the US Naval Institute has characterised China’s actions as ‘maritime grey zone operations’ that ride the thin line between war and peace. In other words, China may be narrowly engaging in war without war.
The case of the Philippines vacillating between ally US and aid-giver China illustrates the stakes in the high seas. The issue of Scarborough Shoal (disputed between China and the Philippines, seized by China in 2012) is alive. In 2016, the Philippines took China to The Hague, which ruled that China’s claims had no legal basis. But China’s commitment to invest in President Rodrigo Duterte’s proposed 75 infrastructure projects under the rubric of ‘Build, Build, Build’ managed to let the sleeping dogs lie.
But in early April, President Duterte protested China’s fishing vessels swarming in on the disputed Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, warning that Philippine troops would resort to ‘suicide missions’ if China touched it. The US said that it would come to the aid of the Philippines in case of any attack, which the Philippines did not refute.
The US has claimed that China’s coast guard and fishing boats are not harmless, benign entities, but de facto maritime militia expanding China’s presence in the seas. The new US position is that hostile behaviour from the coast guard and fishing boats will no longer be treated benign, but on a par with the Chinese navy.
The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Randall Schriver, has indicated that the US would back the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a code of conduct (COC) ‘consistent with existing international laws and norms’ applicable to one and all.
It is no accident, too, that the US has stepped up Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) with two warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait, bringing the total number of transits to 92 (since 2007). In 2018, British navy warship conducted a FONOP and in 2019 a French warship made a transit through the Taiwan Strait. The British and French actions are turning points that indicate a growing consensus on the strategic implications of China’s rise.
China’s BRF party has ended on a high, what with cooperation agreements worth $64 billion signed, a nod to greater multilateralism and participation, but the ground seems shifting. Platitudes of trade and cooperation aside, the storm is brewing in the seas. What’s more, in the polarised political spectrum of the US, President Donald Trump has bipartisan support on this. It’s obviously the issue.
(The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal)