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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Full steam ahead for China's territorial ambitions

July 13, 2010

Peter Hartcher -- International Editor
The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
July 13, 2010

In a famous maxim, China's late leader Deng
Xiaoping urged his countrymen to "hide your
brightness, bide your time". That was more than
20 years ago. It now seems China's leaders have finished biding their time.

In an assertive redefinition of its place in the
world, China has put the South China Sea into its
"core national interest" category of
non-negotiable territorial claims - in the same
league as Taiwan and Tibet. China has drawn a red
line down the map of Asia and defies anyone to cross it.

It brings China into direct conflict with the
claims of five neighbours, and challenges the US
Navy's dominance of the waters. One-third of all
commercial shipping in the world passes through
the waters now claimed exclusively by China, the
sea bounded by Taiwan in the north, Vietnam in
the west, the Philippines in the east and Malaysia and Brunei in the south.

It contains oil and gas fields; some Chinese
analysts have dubbed it "Asia's Persian Gulf" for
its potential oil wealth and its fractiousness.
It is particularly inflammatory because China's
government is repudiating its non-binding 2002
agreement with its south-east Asian neighbours to
solve territorial disputes through peaceful negotiation.

It's a crisis, but a very quiet one. That's
mainly because the affronted countries are
reacting with wary restraint towards their
burgeoning neighbour. Vietnam has pointedly
demanded China observe the agreement, but the
others have been almost inaudible.

And the US?

The US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia
and the Pacific, Kurt Campbell, told the Herald:
"I think the US and China have a flourishing
state-to-state dialogue on a host of issues. In
that larger context there will invariably be
issues on which the US and China will have
differences and we understand that those
differences will extend not just to issues of
rights of Taiwan or issues such as Tibet, but
will also extend to issues like the South China Sea.

"And we have sought to work closely to establish
a dialogue, not just with China but with our
friends in south-east Asia, to ensure that we
fully support the 2002 process between China and
south-east Asian states to deal with any outstanding issues through diplomacy.

In other words, the US also wants China to revert
to the status quo ante, to negotiate rather than
to stake a unilateral claim. And it's working on
the problem. As usual, the Association of
South-East Asian Nations is useless in the face
of trouble. It once again falls to the US to seek a solution.

The ASEAN Regional Forum, which adds China, the
US, Australia and a range of others, is due to
meet in Hanoi on July 23. This is bound to be a hot topic.

Why is China doing this? Because it needs to,
according to one of its top naval officials.
Rear-Admiral Zhang Huachen, deputy commander of
the East Sea Fleet, told The Straits Times: "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."

Walter Russell Mead, of the Council on Foreign
Relations, is unconvinced: "It's sterile in terms
of China's trade ambitions; what commerce does it
protect? China needs the flow of energy and raw
materials from all over the world."

China is doing it because it can, according to a
retired general, Xu Guangyu. "China's long
absence from its exclusive economic waters over
the past decades was an abnormal historical
accident and now it is just advancing to normal
operations," he told the South China Morning
Post. "We kept silent about territory disputes
with our neighbours in the past because our navy
was incapable of defending our economic zones,
but now the navy is able to carry out its task."

And China now thinks it can get away with it,
according to Wang Hanling, an expert in maritime
affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences: "Actually, such disputes have existed
since oil and other oceanic resources were
discovered under the Diaoyu Islands [which Japan
claims under the Japanese name Senkaku Islands]
and the Spratlys and Paracels in the South and East China seas in the 1970s.''

There was a suggestion the south-east Asian
states could form a common front against China, a
prospect "which once concerned Beijing", said
Wang, but which it has now dismissed after three
decades of inaction. "We found our neighbours had
territorial-water disputes to wrangle over and
national interests to defend, which makes it very
difficult for them to build a unified front
against China. Even if they succeed in joining
together, they are still not strong enough to defeat China."

It is one of several moves this year by Beijing
to expand its naval dominion. First, it has
declared a newly expansive naval doctrine. Until
now, its zone of operations was limited to the
so-called First Island Chain, stretching from
Japan to the Philippines. But Beijing now
proclaims "far-sea defence" reaching to the
Second Island Chain, a zone stretching all the
way to Guam, Indonesia and Australia.

Second, it has waged more aggressive patrols and
naval exercises to give operational meaning to
the new doctrine. In April, for instance, a
10-ship fleet sailed beyond the First Island
Chain, an exercise of unprecedented scale for
China. Third, it continues apace to build
capability, including an underground submarine
base on Hainan Island, and an aircraft carrier
battle group, due to be deployed in the next few years.

The head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral
Robert Willard, said in April: "Of particular
concern is that elements of China's military
modernisation appear designed to challenge our
freedom of action in the region."

With its economy thriving and its capabilities
growing, Beijing is no longer biding its time but acting to assert itself.
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