Repeated Chinese navy helicopter flights close to Japan’s Self-Defense Force ships in the East China Sea and the Western Pacific in April were neither professional nor responsible, Japan’s daily Asahi Shimbun quoted the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Patrick Walsh, on Tuesday. Walsh said that China had recently started referring to the South China Sea as its “core interest”, a term it otherwise uses to explain its positions on Tibet and Taiwan. Several states in the region, including Singapore and Vietnam, were now purchasing submarines “as a way of protecting sovereign rights”.
According to Walsh, China detained 433 Vietnamese fishermen in 2009 alone who were working in waters where the territorial claims of the two countries overlap. Walsh has visited several South China littoral states since assuming his position as US Pacific commander last year, among them Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
“These are countries that are interested in a closer relationship with our navy, and I intend to follow up on it”, Asahi Shimbun quotes Walsh.
Japan itself is concerned about Chinese naval traffic. In April this year, two Japanese naval vessels, the Choukai and Suzunami, unexpectedly encountered several Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships, including a pair of submarines and eight destroyers, approximately 140 kilometers west-southwest of Okinawa near the Nansei (Ryukyu) Islands. Reacting to international coverage, Chinese defense ministry spokesman Huang Leiping (黄雪平), also in April, that naval exercises in international waters were common practice, and the countries concerned shouldn’t make arbitrary assumptions (主观臆断) and improper speculations (妄加猜测). To organize exercises in international waters corresponded with international law and was conducted by various other countries, too.
When referring to Chinese core interests on February 26, China’s ambassador to the United States until recently, Zhou Wenzhong (周文重), indeed used the term for describing China’s claim on Taiwan, and US president Barack Obama‘s meeting with the Dalai Lama on February 18. However, the definition has never been quite static. In 2009, Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo (戴秉国) defined the following three “core interests”, in order of importance:
- the survival of China’s “fundamental system” and national security,
- the safeguarding of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and
- continued stable economic growth and social development.
China increased its arms spending by 10% to an estimated USD 83.9 billion in 2008 as Beijing commenced building of new range of highly sophisticated nuclear submarines, stealth warships, new generation of fighter planes and weaponry to fight “Informationalized warfare”. In its 2010 yearbook, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) wrote that China accounted for most of the Asian and East Asian military spending increases in 2009, with an increase of 15 per cent, and that Taiwan and Singapore showed the largest real increase *) in military spending were at 19 per cent each. Also from SIPRI data, America spent 661 bn US-dollars (4.3 per cent of 2008 GDP) on defense in 2009, while China spent an estimated 100 bn (estd. 2.0 per cent of its 2008 GDP), with France, the UK, Russia, Japan, and Germany following.
As far as core interests are concerned, Zhao Nianyu (赵念渝), the Shanghai Institute for International Studies’ research management and international exchanges, and Shanghai Taiwan Research Association’s director, followed up on a meeting between US president Barack Obama and CCP and state chairman Hu Jintao on April 12 (a meeting with a Chinese focus on properly handling the Taiwan and Tibet issues), and advocated on April 16 that Washington- if sincere and not hypocritical in its hope that Chinese-American relations and cooperation should continue to develop, needed to follow “three prescriptions” – or commandments -**) concerning Taiwan, one of China’s core interests (核心利益).
The first prescription or “Don’t”: (Don’t) go back on your word or contradict yourselves. Quote:
“The author’s [i. e. Zhao Nianyu's -- JR] observation of America’s attitude concerning Taiwan hasn’t lasted for a mere one or for two years only. He has read all the documents issued since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and America, has read America’s Congressional Research Department’s ninety documents about cross-strait relations, he has heard previous American leaders’ speeches on the Taiwan problem and every mainstream American think tank’s speech, article, or report on the Taiwan problem, and to put it in an immodest way, he can sum them up in eight characters: they wield their power rather capriciously [翻手为云，覆手为雨, literally: to produce clouds with one turn of the hand, and rain with another turn]. From one wing of the building, an American leader says “One China”, from the other wing, Congress starts saying that ‘Taiwan is a territory without a master’. This wing just agreed to the Three Communiques, that wing says that according to the so-called ‘Taiwan Relations Act’, there was an ‘obligation’ to safeguard Taiwan’s security. This wing just said it would ‘respect China’s core interests’, the other immediately refers to ‘China’s state of mind’ and says that ‘there is no reason to believe that only China has core interests concerning the Taiwan question’. To put it bluntly, when will America’s core interests reach the gates of China, half-a-globespan away from America? The author believes that contradicting themselves on the Taiwan question is a big American characteristic, and there is no need to use ‘separation of powers’ or ‘freedom of speech’ as an excuse here. A big country, and particularly the world’s unique superpower, can’t use any pretext to interfere with another country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when ‘going back on its own words’. America’s government’s position on the Taiwan issue must be unequivocal, clear, and consistent. If they can’t abstain from going back on their own words, this will have an absolutely negative effect on America’s credibility as a responsible big country.“
Zhao’s second commandment refers to American arms sales to Taiwan (a pledge to phase out the arms sales), his third one to “word games” – alleging that the American power monopoly or hegemony goes as far as to give an additional meaning to originally unequivocal, innocent phrase – a language trap (语言陷阱, yǔyán xiànjǐng) created by America for use on the Taiwan issue. ***)
Valérie Niquet of IFRI, in October 2007, suggested that the security of SLOC (Sea Lanes of Communications) was closely linked to China’s core interest in Taiwan:
For China the security of SLOC regarding oil supply is rather specific.The issue does not concern the risk of terrorist attacks; Chinese analysts tend to speak of the Malacca dilemma in order to express their own preoccupations with the security of sea lanes. According to Chinese strategists, the main threat of disruption comes from the US and its allies, in the Indian Ocean and along the SLOC in South East and East Asia because of a potential war with Taiwan. One of China’s priorities is to reduce at least part of China’s dependency on SLOC for oil and energy supply and develop land routes and pipelines. For the time being, China’s dependency on SLOC for oil is over 90 %. ****)
Ralf Emmers, in a paper for Nanyang University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of September 2009, notes a growing asymmetry of naval power to the advantage of China in the South China Sea. Besides the opportunities to extract resources from the waters around the Spratley and Paracel Islands, they are also at the center of strategic considerations. If it “ever succeeds in realizing its territorial claims, China will be able to extend its jurisdiction to the heart of Southeast Asia. And besides, Emmers argues, Beijing was aiming at a strategy of sea denial meant at keeping US forces temporarily out of a limited naval zone from where they could support Taiwan *****).
In a reaction to Emmers’ paper, an article by Wang Nannan (王楠楠), apparently a military affairs reporter, first published by Eastday (东方网, Shanghai) and republished by Xinhua Net on October 27,. 2009, noted that Emmers’ “report” pointed out that obviously, China’s military buildup in the South China Sea wasn’t only to be used for avoiding, or by use of armed force (if necessary) eliminate any violation of any territory of which its sovereignty was disputed, but also China’s security at sea, its economic prosperity, and its energy supplies, which required safeguarding the South East Asian shipping lanes – the Strait of Malacca, the Singapore Strait, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. The Eastday article also reproduces Emmers’ argument about a strategy of sea denial to keep US forces away from Taiwan in case of conflict. It attaches particular importance to this paragraph:
The only power capable of countering the Chinese military would be the United States, particularly through its Seventh Fleet. Yet, Washington has repeatedly stated that the Philippine claimed territories were not covered by the Mutual Defence Treaty of 30 August 1951, which ties the Philippines to the United States. (…) Though following closely the developments in the South China Sea, the United States has consistently limited its interest to the preservation of the freedom of navigation and the mobility of its Seventh Fleet. It is therefore unclear how far the United States would go to support either Taiwan or the Philippines should conflict occur in the South China Sea. *******)
Admiral Walsh’s remarks of this week (see above) could mark a shift in Washington’s policies on the South China Sea – but how exactly Walsh is going to follow up on Vietnam’s, Singapore’s, Malaysia’s, Indonesia’s and other South China littoral states’ apparent interest in closer cooperation with the US Navy remains to be seen.
*) Real increase / decrease usually includes a calculation of general decrease in the value of the amount in question — JR
**) “three prescriptions” – or three things not to do – (三戒) may actually allude to the Three Cautionary Fables (三戒) by Liu Zongyuan (柳宗元), describing the sad endings of the deer of Linjiang, the donkey of Guizhou, and the rats of a certain family at Yongzhou, the three of who (or which) count on other peoples’ human potential (倚仗人势) and look outwardly strong but are inwardly weak (色厉内荏).
***) This third paragraph looks interestingly paranoid to me – but it is also the one I find rather difficult to translate. Here is the Chinese text:
****) Niquet quoting E. Downs, “China”, Brookings Foreign policy Studies, “Energy Security Series”, December 2006
*****) Ralf Emmers, “The Changing Power Distribution in the South China Sea: Implications for Conflict Management and Avoidance”, RSIS working paper no. 183, Singapore, September 30, 2009, page 6, based on David Lague, “Dangerous Waters: Playing Cat and Mouse in the South China Sea”, Global Asia, Vol. 4 (2), Summer 2009, p. 59
******) Ralf Emmers, ibid, page 8