Sun, Apr 26, 2015 - Page 8 News List

China’s rise ignites shock and awe

By Sushil Seth

China’s rise inspires awe, a combination of fear and admiration. The fear is much more pronounced among some of its neighbors, involving claims and counterclaims of sovereignty over a clutch of islands in the South China and East China seas.

In the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam are particularly at odds with China, as it has sought to occupy and encircle disputed islands. China is creating new islands out of submerged coral reefs, turning them into military facilities to project power and threaten its neighbors.

Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, sounded the alarm recently about a string of islands China has dug out and leveled, posing a threat to stability in the South China Sea, which has some of the busiest sea lanes carrying global trade.

“China is creating a Great Wall of Sand with dredgers and bulldozers over the course of months,” Harris said in a speech delivered in Canberra, Australia, on March 31.

“When one looks at China’s pattern of provocative actions towards smaller claimant states — the lack of clarity on its sweeping nine-dash line claim that is inconsistent with international law — and the deep asymmetry between China’s capabilities and those of its smaller neighbors — well, it’s no surprise that the scope and pace of building manmade islands [by China] raises serious questions about China’s intentions,” he said.

In other words, China is posing a threat to regional stability.

According to Michael Wesley, director of the Asia Pacific School at the Australian National University: “This marks a real ramping up of US determination and resolve in the region, reflecting a realization that China is determined to play hard ball in the South China Sea.”

Indeed, this looks like a delayed follow up to US President Barack Obama’s declaration of the US “pivot” to Asia announced in the Australian parliament during a separate visit in 2011.

And how will the US go about dealing with the China threat? One way is to forge a common strategy with ASEAN member states, as a number of them are contesting China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. One example is that ASEAN members might be encouraged to form joint maritime patrols.

The commander of the US Navy Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas said: “If ASEAN members were to take the lead in organizing something along those lines, trust me, the US Seventh Fleet would be ready to support.”

Rebutting the idea that China’s threat might not eventuate, Harris told the dinner gathering in Canberra: “As we like to say in navy circles: Hope is not a strategy.”

The US already has security alliances with some regional countries, though they are not specifically directed against China. It periodically holds military exercises with its regional allies. Australia, for example, is a strong partner and has not made any secret of its concern about China’s regional claims — at least the way Beijing is pursuing them. Similarly, Japan is a US ally and Tokyo is embroiled in a row with China over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, which has the potential for a military clash. Taiwan also claims the islands.

Japan is also helping Vietnam and the Philippines by supplying naval patrol boats to help them face the Chinese threat.

As Alan Dupont of the University of NSW in Sydney said: “We need to work with our nearest neighbors to persuade China that it is not in their best interest to militarize South China Sea and there would be consequences in doing so.”

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