- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

HONOLULU — On the heels of the U.S.-China reconnaissance-plane incident, and given China's extensive claims and assertive actions in the South China Sea, many Western analysts see China as a threat to peace and sea-lane security there.
But when China's defense strategists look southward beyond its broad, vulnerable underbelly, what they see are former vassal states usurping China's islands and oil, backed by the increasing presence of a "foreign imperialist power" (the United States) that threatens its vital sea lanes and its very security.
Indeed, in China's view, the United States is intent on encircling it with military alliances, bases and military-access arrangements involving Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore. To China's dismay, even India is extending its naval presence into the South China Sea, possibly with the tacit encouragement of the United States.
So, too, with the Philippines, one of China's rival claimants in the South China Sea. In early 2000, the United States and the Philippines reimplemented their Visiting Forces Agreement and have been conducting a series of joint exercises that extend into the South China Sea.

Playing to China's fears
Further infuriating China, the United States has agreed to sell advanced weapons and submarines to China's archenemy, Taiwan.
If this were not enough to convince China of nefarious U.S. intentions, in March 2000, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen proposed U.S.-Vietnamese military cooperation. This certainly alerted those who remember the Soviet Union's use of Vietnam in its strategy to encircle China.
As if to confirm mainland China's worst fears, Adm. Dennis C. Blair, commander in chief of U.S. Forces in the Pacific, proposed that the United States lead an integrated, multilateral, military exercise in Southeast Asia called "Team Challenge." Indeed, that U.S.-Philippine exercises also includes troops from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
China's fear of "containment" is further fueled by U.S. plans for a theater missile-defense shield (TMD), which it believes is directed at it.

Beijing seeks buffer area
Also related is U.S. insistence on absolute freedom of navigation and overflight, even of reconnaissance planes, close to China's coast. A recent report by the U.S. Defense Department concluded that a sea-based component of TMD is critical to its success.
This sea-based component would include upgraded versions of the Aegis air-defense system, coupled with new, faster ship-launched missiles for the United States itself and its allies, including Japan, South Korea and perhaps eventually Taiwan. The surface ships and submarines carrying the anti-ballistic missiles would have to maneuver close to the launch site to be effective.
China is determined to consolidate its borders and control its claimed areas as part of its drive to re-establish a "greater China" and its historical role as the dominant power in Asia. More immediately, to defend itself from perceived threats, China wants to establish a protective sphere in its surrounding seas and has embarked on an aggressive campaign to acquire and develop conventional weapons and capabilities that will allow it to assert control over the islands — and eventually the entire South China Sea.

Domestic factors involved
There are also domestic motivations for China's behavior. Beijing must demonstrate to its increasingly assertive provinces, as well as to the democracy movements in China and Hong Kong and the independence movement on Taiwan, that it is firmly in control of national policy. Indeed, China's rising tide of nationalism is being used to replace socialism as the new societal glue.
China's nationalists are also using issues like sovereignty over the Spratlys as a way to reassert themselves. That the Spratly archipelago has been part of the motherland since ancient times is embedded in the Chinese national psyche. If, after losing territories to Western powers in the last century, China should now lose territory to small regional countries that it once dominated, national pride and the very legitimacy of the government could be severely damaged.
Another prime motive for China's behavior in the South China Sea is oil — real or imagined. With China's spectacular economic growth has come a corresponding leap in oil consumption and a growing dependence on imported oil. If no large oil fields are found, by 2010, China will need to import 100 million tons of crude annually — much of it through the South China Sea.

Neighbors drill for oil
China feels that the other South China Sea claimants have unilaterally exploited oil in its claimed areas. Indeed, about 120 wells have been drilled under the auspices of other claimants within China's historic claim, and the annual output from the area within China's claim is more than 1 million tons. China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) argues that militarily weaker countries are taking advantage of China's tolerance and restraint by quietly plundering China's oil.
However, China's ability to use force in its perceived self-defense is limited by the possible reactions of the United States, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
It is now more on the political defensive because Vietnam has become a member of ASEAN, the United States has ended its embargo and re-established ties with Vietnam, and concern about China's intentions is growing within ASEAN and beyond. China recognizes that it needs the support of ASEAN to counter what it perceives as Western attempts to control, constrain, contain or undermine it.

Multilateralism's pitfalls
Some diplomats have tried to push a multilateral solution to the South China issues. But China is cautious about multilateralism. It fears that the agenda and process may be manipulated by the United States or others. It also fears that Taiwan may use the Spratly dialogue to advance its quest for international recognition.
In addition, China feels that security issues, including the Spratlys disputes, are best dealt with bilaterally, rather than in a multilateral process in which smaller countries can gang up against it.
China thus opposes including the Spratly issue on the agenda of multilateral security discussions, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum.
The strategic question is one of time.

Inevitability at work
China will eventually become a major economic and military power. If its political makeup remains unchanged and it continues to press its expansive claims in the South China Sea aggressively, the islands and their attendant maritime space may simply fall into its hands like ripe fruit. At the least, it will dominate the issue and obtain the lion's share in any settlement.
Thus, for the South China Sea, China's strategy is to play for time while slowly asserting itself militarily farther and farther from its shores. In sum, China views itself as the rightful sovereign of the South China Sea and the other states as usurpers and interlopers.
It will likely continue to combine tactics of ambiguity, incrementalism, timing, selective use of force and "divide and dominate" until it achieves its goal.
Mark J. Valencia, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, whose research focuses on maritime policy, international relations and economic cooperation in Northeast Asia.

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