Sun, Dec 01, 2013 - Page 8 News List

China’s creeping ‘cabbage’ strategy

By Brahma Chellaney

China’s strategy has had more success — without provoking serious risks — against the weaker Philippines. This is apparent from China’s effective seizure last year of the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island (黃岩島), located well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and the controlling presence of Chinese vessels this year around the Second Thomas Shoal (Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙), part of the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) — these territories are also claimed by Taiwan.

China has not yet tried to evict the eight Filipino marines still living on the Second Thomas Shoal, but Zhang has included this shoal in the country’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea.

China is not aiming for control of just a few shoals or other tiny outcrops; it seeks to dominate the South and East China Seas strategically and corner maritime resources, including seabed minerals.

The combined land area of the Diaoyutai and Spratly islands amounts to barely 11km2; but the islands are surrounded by rich hydrocarbon reserves.

While seeking to incrementally enlarge its military footprint in the more than 80 percent of the South China Sea that it claims, China’s aim in the East China Sea is to break out of the so-called “first island chain,” a string of archipelagos along the East Asian coast that includes the Diaoyutai Islands and Taiwan.

By contrast, vast tracts of disputed land are at stake in the resource-rich Himalayan region.

Here, too, China’s incursions, after increasing in frequency, are now being staged intermittently for longer periods.

Make no mistake: China’s territorial creep is contributing to Asian insecurity, fueling political tension, and turning the world’s most economically vibrant continent into a potentially global hot spot.

To be sure, China is careful to avoid any dramatic action that could become a casus belli by itself. Indeed, it has repeatedly shown a knack for disaggregating its strategy into multiple parts and then pursuing each element separately in such a manner as to allow the different pieces to fall into place with minimal resistance.

This shrewdness not only keeps opponents off balance; it also undercuts the relevance of US security assurances to allies and the value of building countervailing strategic partnerships in Asia. In fact, by camouflaging offense as defense, China casts the burden of starting a war on an opponent, while it seeks to lay the foundation — brick by brick — of a hegemonic Middle Kingdom.

Chinese leaders’ stated desire to resolve territorial disputes peacefully simply means achieving a position strong enough to get their way without having to fire a shot.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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