China PLAN Navy South China Sea 900x540
China PLAN Navy South China Sea 900x540

By RICHARD JAVAD HEYDARIAN, WASHINGTON published in ASIA Times

China warns ominously of ‘unexpected incidents’ as US strives to build anti-China coalition in the waterway.

The United States and China have doubled down on their struggle for dominance of the South China Sea and broader Indo-Pacific, as recent sea confrontations and fiery rhetoric threaten to escalate into conflict.

Bolstered by its ever-expanding and rapidly modernizing Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China has shown diminishing restraint in deterring, intercepting and seeking to exclude American naval assets from its claimed adjacent waters.

Boasting one of the world’s largest maritime fleet, with an armada of para-military forces and vessels increasingly acting as force multipliers, the PLAN recently deployed warships and warplanes to intercept America’s littoral combat ships in the South China Sea.

According to the PLAN’s Southern Theater Command spokesperson Li Huamin, China “sent ships and aircraft to conduct the whole-process monitoring and verification on the two US warships and warned them to leave.”

Intent on protecting China’s “blue national soil”, the PLAN spokesperson on November 22 “urged the US side to stop such provocative acts immediately so as to avoid unexpected incidents” in waters where “China has indisputable sovereignty.”

China’s unprecedented pushback came hot on the heels of the Pentagon’s deployment of the USS Montgomery and USS Gabrielle Giffords for so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to the South China Sea.

A US naval vessel plies the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

According to the Pentagon, the two littoral combat ships “bolster attack strength in [the] South China Sea” as part of broader efforts to pressure China to “abide by international rules.” The US Navy said one littoral ship sailed near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands on November 20, while the USS Wayne E Meyer guided-missile destroyer passed the Paracel Islands the following day.

China, which opposes the presence of American warships in its claimed waters, accused the US of “stir[ring] up trouble in the South China Sea under the pretext of freedom of navigation.”

China’s daring move to intercept US warships coincided with the high-profile visit of US Defense Secretary Mark Esper to the region, where he sought to rally China-containing support from key allies and partners, including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea.

On his tour, the Pentagon chief announced a new defense aid package for Vietnam focused on bolstering its maritime security capabilities; resumption of long-stalled Special Forces training with Indonesia in parallel to growing joint naval exercises; and an upgrading of mutual defense measures under a 1951 treaty with the Philippines, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s warming ties with China.

Top American officials have upped the rhetorical ante in the aftermath of Esper’s tour, calling publicly for greater support from established allies against China’s rising assertiveness in the contested sea.

At a much-anticipated speech at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada, Admiral Philip Davidson, the US Indo-Pacific Command chief, highlighted what he sees as China’s threat to the global maritime order.

In the past 30 months, the Indo-Pacific commander said, China has made more global naval deployments than in the last 30 years. Recognizing China’s growing economic influence, Davidson urged allies to support US countermeasures against China’s existing and emerging threats to ”freedom” while saying “the international order is worth defending.”

Navy personnel of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) take part in a military display in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Regarding the South China Sea, Davidson warned Southeast Asian nations against acquiescing to any agreement with China which limits freedom of navigation and overflight in the wide-reaching maritime area. The Pentagon is particularly perturbed by Beijing’s push for a legally-binding code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, which as proposed would exclude a US presence in the maritime theater.

During recent CoC negotiations between China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, Beijing reportedly pushed for exclusive sharing of fisheries and energy resources in the area, to the exclusion of external powers.

China also called for restrictions on the ability of regional states to conduct joint naval exercises with the US and its regional allies.

Davidson effectively asked Southeast Asian states to hold their ground while highlighting America’s countervailing commitment to the region’s security through regularized FONOPs and naval exercises in the South China Sea.

The Pentagon, the admiral said in his address, conducted two FONOPs in mid-November alone, in addition to multiple naval exercises with allies and strategic partners in September and October.

The Indo-Pacific commander promised such deployments will rise as the Pentagon seeks to project more air and sea power from Japan, Guam and Hawaii, and rotate more naval assets in the region, including permanently based littoral combat ships in Singapore.

More subtly, the Pentagon has also recently expanded its access to military facilities in Vietnam and the Philippines, both frontline nations in the South China Sea disputes with China.

Davidson’s speech was a mix of reassurance and demand for greater support from Southeast Asian allies. US FONOPs already have strong support from transatlantic and Indo-Pacific allies, including Australia, Canada, France, Britain, Japan, and India.

Collage image of US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping.(R) Image: Twitter

In recent years, all these major naval powers have engaged in various forms of FONOPs with the US, with Britain and France recently deploying vessels in the South China Sea.

The US has deployed warships, sometimes two at a time, within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificially reclaimed islands, naval maneuvers that China views as “illegal.” Satellite imagery shows China has militarized several of the features it controls, with the US Pacific Command claiming last year that Beijing has built as many as seven military bases in the sea.

Likeminded naval powers, meanwhile, have either deployed naval assets in proximity to contested islands occupied by China and/or conducted naval exercises while passing through contested waters in the area.

Washington’s pushback and call for greater ally support, however, has not been confined to the South China Sea disputes. The US clearly feels interoperability and intelligence-sharing with allies is also at risk of being compromised by China.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, speaking on November 23 at the Halifax forum, urged allies to reject Chinese telecom investments, particularly those that use Huawei 5G network technology.

“When they get Huawei into Canada…they’re going to know every health record, every banking record, every social media post. They’re going to know everything about every single Canadian,” said O’Brien, portraying China’s telecommunications technology as a “Trojan horse.”

“What the Chinese are doing makes Facebook and Google look like child’s play, as far as collecting information on folks,” he added, arguing that China’s expanding grip on global telecommunications would enhance its ability to “micro-target” voters and affect elections in Western democracies.

US defense officials are pressuring allies not to use Huawei-made 5G equipment. Photo: AFP

O’Brien also openly warned that intelligence cooperation among the so-called Five Eyes alliance, which includes intelligence agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and US, could also suffer accordingly.

“The Huawei Trojan horse is frightening, it’s terrifying,” the US national security adviser said. “I find it amazing that our allies and friends in other liberal democracies would allow Huawei in … I’m surprised that there’s even a debate out there.”

China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, has dismissed such criticisms as “groundless accusation,” and urged Canada to “provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies, including Huawei.”

China has emerged on the international stage with its dragon diplomacy. Photo: Flickr

The seeds of China’s global ambitions were sown after reuniting Hong Kong with the mainland.

Margaret Thatcher arrived in Beijing famed for her handbag diplomacy.

She departed stumbling down the steps of the Great Hall of the People with her Iron Lady image dented. When it came to Hong Kong, she was stunned by the uncompromising, even “abrasive,” line adopted by China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping.

In September 1982, the then British Prime Minister thought she could cut a deal to retain the last vestige of empire. She left visibly shaken.

For once, “this Lady was for turning,” despite toppling General Galtieri’s junta abroad and later breaking the trade unions at home. Just months earlier, a UK expeditionary force had defeated Argentinian troops to retake the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

“He [Deng] said that the Chinese could walk in and take Hong Kong back later today if they wanted to,” Thatcher said in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, which were published in 1993. “I retorted that they could indeed do so; I could not stop them. But this would bring about Hong Kong’s collapse. The world would then see what followed a change from British to Chinese rule.”

Eventually, a joint declaration was signed in 1984 and the “One Country, Two Systems” model was put in place before the handover three years later. The state-run Global Times reported that it was inevitable and prophesied China’s emergence on the international stage. The dragon was awakening.

“Thatcher managed to understand that China is not Argentina and Hong Kong is not the Falklands,” the tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist Party, recalled. “The spirit China brings to international politics is expanding.”

Fast forward three decades and the country’s amazing economic rise has been mirrored by a more hard-boiled foreign policy after the “century of humiliation.”

With wealth comes responsibility and at times President Xi Jinping’s diplomatic dance has resembled a ballroom blitz rather than a bossa nova.

Confrontation with the United States over trade is only matched by a growing military presence in the South China Sea and beyond. Flashpoints also exist amid rising tensions in Hong Kong over pro-democracy protests and human rights issues surrounding the Muslim detention camps in the Xinjiang region.

“What does China want? Economic supremacy,” Jonathan D T Ward, the founder of the consultancy Atlas Organization, and the author of China’s Vision of Victory, wrote.

“China can become, in many of our lifetimes, a global power ‘second to none’ … The Chinese Communist Party’s strategy is intended to deliver the creation of a new world system with China at its center – and the de facto end of an American-led world,” he continued.

“The United States and other democratic powers must strengthen connectivity, and economic, military, technological, education, and innovation potential, in ways which enable us to build ourselves and build each other, while closing China off from access to the things that pave its way to power,” Ward added.

“The rise of China reminds us of something both very new and very old: the age of empire is not over,” he pointed out in China’s Vision of Victory, which was published earlier this year.

While his “age of empire” analogy is debatable, Beijing’s global ambitions are not. The US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative is a testament to China’s economic might and global reach.

Epic in scale, these ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways will connect China with 70 countries and 4.4 billion people across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe in a maze of multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects, including a web of digital links.

High-tech strands

At the heart of the project will be high-tech strands to showcase, and expand the nation’s prowess. They will include 5G, AI, or artificial intelligence, and the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, the country’s answer to GPS.

Spare capacity from state-owned conglomerates and innovation from private sector juggernauts will be poured into overseas projects, symbols of the country’s economic and research rejuvenation.

“The Digital Silk Road has become the focal point of the BRI as controlling the flow of data becomes increasingly important for shifting the balance of geopolitical power in China’s favor,” Andrew Kitson, the head of technology research, and Kenny Liew, a technology analyst at Fitch Solutions, wrote in a report earlier this year.

Yet the program’s speed and scope are staggering. Beijing has not only exported its technical skills for building vast infrastructure developments but also its single party state-run model.

Propaganda and projects appear to run on the same tracks like the new rail networks sprouting up in developing African and Asia nations.

So how will this play out? Yan Xuetong, the dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University, outlined a complex scenario in his seminal paper, The Age of Uneasy Peace:

“China’s ambitions for the coming years are much narrower than many in the Western foreign policy establishment tend to assume. Rather than unseating the United States as the world’s premier superpower, Chinese foreign policy in the coming decade will largely focus on maintaining the conditions necessary for the country’s continued economic growth.

“Both sides will build up their militaries but remain careful to manage tensions before they boil over into outright conflict. And rather than vie for global supremacy through opposing alliances, Beijing and Washington will largely carry out their competition in the economic and technological realms.

“At the same time, US-Chinese bipolarity will likely spell the end of sustained multilateralism outside strictly economic realms, as the combination of nationalist populism in the West and China’s commitment to national sovereignty will leave little space for the kind of political integration and norm-setting that was once the hallmark of liberal internationalism.”

Part of that assessment can be seen through the prism of the state-run media, complete with censors, making sure the Communist Party line is articulated in sound bites.

A more assertive foreign policy is also pushed by the China Global Television Network, or CGTN, through its worldwide bureaus, the Xinhua news agency and the rapidly expanding global edition of China Daily. The “China Dream” is packaged and repackaged into soft power cultural morsels.

“The Middle Kingdom projects its power and secures its national interests in three ways: exercising might, spending money and expressing its own mindset. Each of these relates to one another, and each has somewhat inhibited China’s pursuit of international order in its own vision,” Yu Jie, of the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House in London, said.

“In terms of might, China’s sheer size and self-perception of its own interests will inevitably lead to expectations that the rules of international politics will change around China, even without President Xi in power,” she continued.

“Deng Xiaoping’s approach – to ‘keep a low profile’ and ‘hide capability’ – is being replaced by Xi’s much more proactive approach, which seeks to promote China’s core interests more forcefully while asserting its ‘rightful’ place in the global order. Whether China’s bureaucracy and government are yet fully equipped with the skills to meet the new challenges remains to be seen,” Yu added.

More than two decades earlier, the late Margaret Thatcher expressed sorry and hope after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong. She believed that the freewheeling and vibrant city would act as a catalyst for change. It simply has not happened.

”The Chinese belief that the benefits of a liberal economic system can be had without a liberal political system seems to be false in the long term,’’ she said.

Twenty years later, political control in China has been refined and tighten even further with the aid of the Great Firewall, which suppresses online discussion. Not even handbag diplomacy will alter that situation any time soon.

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