Beijing claims a vast U-shaped line around the South China Sea that brushes up against the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. The area is thought to hold vast, untapped reserves of oil and natural gas, and naval flashpoints between Chinese vessels and the Philippine and Vietnamese navy have become increasingly common.
Hopes for a diplomatic resolution within the ASEAN-China framework look bleak in the next two years as tiny Brunei and then Myanmar take up the chairmanship of the group.
Cambodia, like fellow “Mekong” countries Laos and Myanmar, has been rapidly pulled into China’s economic orbit through rocketing trade and investment ties.
It has become customary for Chinese officials to arrive in Cambodia bearing “gifts,” such as the US$100 million investment that Wen announced on his arrival this week to build the emerging country’s biggest cement plant. China has moved nimbly to set up free-trade deals with Southeast Asian nations and has played a dominant role in financing and building big infrastructure projects in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
After the summit, Wen visited Thailand where he signed an understanding to buy rice, which should strongly lift Beijing’s standing with a government that is a close ally of the US. Bangkok has built up record stockpiles of 14 million tonnes of milled rice after a populist program to pay farmers more for their crops made exports unprofitable.
If diplomatic efforts stall, China’s options to back its claims with force if needed are steadily growing with a military budget that outstrips the combined spending of Southeast Asia.
As China ushered in a new generation of leaders this month, outgoing President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) made a pointed reference to strengthening China’s naval forces, protecting maritime interests and the need to “win local wars.”
“We should make active planning for the use of military force in peacetime, expand and intensify military preparedness and enhance the capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local wars in an information age,” Hu said.
Besides the South China Sea, China is embroiled in a dispute with Japan, also a close US ally, over islands in the East China Sea.
China’s stance is that it is not trying to become an offensive naval power, but wants to secure its energy imports and boost development of maritime natural resources, which are expected to represent 10 percent of its economy by 2015.
However, it is also wary of being encircled as the US refocuses its military clout on Asia in what Obama has called a “pivot” back to the region as wars in the Middle East wind down.
“It is absolutely [a buildup],” said Ruan Zongze (阮宗澤), deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, the think tank of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“No matter what kind of narrative you use, the reality is that the US in the past three years has been putting greater emphasis or focus on the west Pacific. That raises a lot of questions for China,” Ruan said.
China launched its first aircraft carrier in September, increasing its ability to project forces deeper into “blue-water” maritime territory. Bought from Ukraine ostensibly to use as a floating casino, the Chinese navy spent years refurbishing the carrier, which is undergoing sea trials. It also test-flew two types of stealth fighters this year, the second one last month — a smaller, more maneuverable model believed to be designed to be deployed on an aircraft carrier.