In the year just passed, China loudly, if not rudely, declared its supremacy over the Asia-Pacific region. In March, for instance, it asserted its sovereignty over the South China Sea by declaring it an area of “core national interest” on par with Tibet and Taiwan.
In this way, Beijing simply brushed aside the claims of other regional countries to islands in these waters.
Indeed, a Chinese scientific submarine planted a Chinese flag on the floor of the ocean to announce to all and sundry that it was Chinese waters.
“It [planting the flag] might provoke some countries, but we’ll be all right,” according to Zhao Junhai (趙俊海), a key designer of the submarine.
In any case, he said, “The South China Sea belongs to China. Let’s see who dares to challenge that.”
China, therefore, overrode its own commitment to resolve the sovereignty issue peacefully and through diplomacy with its neighbors. To emphasize Beijing’s seriousness, Chinese ships reportedly seized dozens of Vietnamese fishing boats and arrested their crews.
Months later, in September, China threatened Japan with reprisals when the Japanese coast guard arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler after it collided with two Japanese patrol boats around the Senkaku Islands, administered by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing and Taipei as the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) Islands.
It halted exports of rare earth metals to Japan, crucial for high-end electronics products, and it demanded an apology and compensation that Tokyo refused. However, Japan caved in by releasing the Chinese captain when it had earlier announced that he would be put on trial.
The point is that through these pronouncements, China was announcing to the world that it was the new boss around the region.
China was also furious with the US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, regarding it as an unwarranted intrusion into what it, more or less, regards as its own waters or regional sphere of influence.
In other words, through its actions and words, China is proclaiming its own version of the Monroe Doctrine for the 21st century.
Of course, this will be contested, as it is creating a rethinking in the region and bringing some of China’s neighbors into closer political and military ties with the US. That, however, is a different story.
The question then is: Why did China choose last year as the year to announce from the housetops that it is the master of the Asia-Pacific region?
An important reason is the psychological boost that it got from the sad state of Western economies in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Even though China was badly affected initially, with many millions of workers laid off in its export industries, it retrieved itself from the situation with an injection of almost US$600 billion in stimulus to its economy.
At the same time, its export sector also recovered rather well. The trade surplus with the US continued to increase by about US$200 billion a year.
This doesn’t mean that China’s economy is without serious problems, but that is a story by itself.
Second, with the US economy in trouble and its military overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, China underestimated Washington’s resolve and capacity to maintain its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
It would seem that the US determination to stand by its South Korean ally against Pyongyang’s provocations was a bit of a shock to Beijing, including sending US aircraft carriers to the Yellow Sea to take part in joint naval exercises. And the US did this against Beijing’s warning.
Third, China didn’t expect that its Asian neighbors would be unduly upset by its proclamation of a new Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine, believing that by now they had already been resolved to accepting Beijing’s regional primacy.
However, it had the opposite effect of bringing countries like Japan, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Singapore and others closer to Washington. In other words, Beijing overestimated its regional role.
Xu Guangyu (徐光宇), a retired Chinese general, reportedly said: “We kept silent about territorial disputes with our neighbors in the past [in the South China Sea and elsewhere] because our navy was incapable of defending economic zones, but now the navy is able to carry out its task.”
Of course, these disputes had existed and China had pledged to solve them peacefully.
However, reflecting China’s new confidence, Wang Hanlin (王漢林), a maritime expert, said: “Even if they [China’s Southeast Asian neighbors] succeed in joining together [against China], they are still not strong enough to defeat China.”
Fourth, with its growing economy, China’s military budget over the years has grown annually by double-digit figures — now at around US$100 billion — which is enabling Beijing to build up a powerful military machine both for offensive operations, as well as creating a powerful deterrent against US naval supremacy.
According to recent reports, China has been developing missiles to sink US aircraft carriers.
And along the imperialist tradition, China is building a strong navy to protect its economic interests across the world.
As Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen (張華臣), deputy commander of China’s East Sea Fleet, has reportedly said: “With the expansion of the country’s economic interests, the navy wants to better protect the country’s transportation routes and the safety of our major sea-lanes” (including by purporting to annex the South China Sea).
If China’s purpose last year was to formally assert its regional supremacy, it hasn’t succeeded all that well.
Over the past few years, China has sought to convince the world, especially its neighbors, that its rise would be peaceful and that it would never aspire for hegemony. What it did and said last year, however, didn’t square with any sort of “peaceful rise.”
There is disturbing arrogance emanating from Zhongnanhai. An example of this was recounted by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Beijing correspondent, John Garnaut, in an interview he did last month with the state-run Global Times editor Hu Xijin (胡錫進).
“In our interview, he [Hu] didn’t seem to care whether his [verbal] missiles were aimed at me personally or my profession, my country or the wider Western world,” Garnaut wrote.
For Hu, Australia was too insignificant to lecture China, because “you are driving a cart and we are driving a truck,” according to Garnaut.
“Ditto for Japan, given its entire stock of highways was no greater than China could build in a single year. And the New York Times was ‘full of lies,’” Garnaut wrote.
In other words, last year was an ugly year for the region, with the Chinese dragon baring its teeth, indicating turbulent times ahead.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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