Beware the Chinese Sea-Dragon

Chinese bellicosity in the near seas could usher in a new era of instability.

Recently, Chinese assertiveness was brought to the fore by its sparring with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. In early September a conflagration of anti-Japanese protests and boycotts engulfed China after the Japanese government attempted to buy ownership of the disputed atolls from a Japanese businessman. The Chinese government responded forcibly, sending roughly 1,000 fishing vessels to the area, flanked by six frigates and several surveillance units. 

However, this is not an isolated incident; such territorialism has long been visible in Beijing's regional strategy, particularly in its aggressive posture toward rival territorial claimants in the South China Sea dispute. Since the early 2000s, China has pursued an unwavering campaign to claim ownership of the sea's two disputed archipegalos – the Paracels and the Spratlys – that has embroiled it in countless diplomatic stalemates with the seven Southeast Asia states that also claim to hold sovereignty over the disputed reefs. 

Combine this with its intense naval modernisation programme and alarm bells begin to ring. To some, it’s a harbinger of things to come; that China is increasingly working off a more imperial playbook. All across East Asia, from Tokyo to the Jakarta, the notion that Beijing is carving out its own Monroe Doctrine is taking on a new degree of salience.

To others, it can be argued that China is simply responding to American containment policies, especially at a time when Washington is embarking on a diplomatic and military “pivot” to East-Asia.

Either way, the statistics are staggering. According to SIPRI, an independent research institute, China’s annual military budget has skyrocketed from $30bn in 2000 to $120bn in 2010 – a 400 per cent increase.

Worryingly for Japan and the seven nations embroiled in the South China Sea dispute (Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei), much of this spending has gone on a kaleidoscope array of naval weaponry.

Last month, China unveiled the Liaoning – its first aircraft carrier – with five more reportedly in development. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has also stepped up its rate of submarine commissionings some 260 per cent between 2003 and 2012, whilst simultaneously transforming its previously outdated battleship force into a vast fleet of modern frigates, destroyers and amphibious vessels.

Such an extensive naval overhaul has afforded China the hardware it needs to buttress its claims and flex its muscle in the East and South China seas. More importantly, the wholesale development of “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities – or in layman's terms, land-based weaponry designed to destroy naval units – poses a profound threat to American interests in the region.

With weaponry as sophisticated as the anti-ship ballistic missile – a missile capable of destroying US aircraft carriers – alongside heavy investment in land-based maritime strike aircraft, the concern is that China is gearing its navy towards one that can deter US intervention when things get heavy in territorial disputes. Many pundits are warning of China establishing the near seas as a zone of exceptionalism in which it has carte blanche to pursue its ambitions unhindered; a domain in which even the world’s largest heavyweight, the US, has no jurisdiction.

Whilst such comprehensive naval build-up is alone cause for substantial concern, Beijing's staunch posture on its sovereignty claims in the seas’ disputed atolls provides an added dimension to fears over China’s rise. In both the East and South China seas, the Chinese politburo have approached their claims as a matter of indisputable sovereignty; unfaltering claims of absolute ownership. Any backtrack on these would be catastrophic, given the vociferous nationalism that often accompanies such claims.

The disputes also encompass a pronounced economic dimension: Oil. Chinese analysts estimate that the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands may hold as much as 160 billion barrels of oil, and the South China Sea 213 billion – vastly outstripping Saudi Arabia’s reserves of 265 billion. And with China recently becoming a net oil importer, the seas’ hydrocarbon offerings become all the more tantalising.

The vying for sovereignty over the seas’ hydrocarbon-rich waters is at the heart of these territorial disputes and has drawn China into numerous naval standoffs in the past couple of years, the Senkaku/Diaoyu being the latest in a long list of confrontations.

Earlier this year, the Philippines and China were engaged in shadow-boxing over Scarborough shoal in the Spratly islands. In June, China invited foreign oil companies to partake in seismic surveys within Vietnamese waters, much to Hanoi's chagrin.

The net result of such assertiveness has led to sharp deteriorations in Beijing's relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and almost all of its individual member states. Furthermore, China’s routine reference to the infamous “nine-dashed-line” – which covers 90 per cent of the sea’s waters and all its islands – as the basis for its claims has sparked a spiralling arms race in Southeast Asia. Virtually every state embroiled in the dispute has responded to China’s modernisation programme with its own, with overall ASEAN defense spending set to increase from $24.5bn in 2011 to $40bn by 2016, according to the Economist.

Whilst apocalyptic predictions of China entering a momentous Pacific showdown with the US are entirely misplaced, if not ridiculous, China has developed an extensive near-seas capacity that provides Beijing the wherewithal to pursue its ambitions, whatever they may be.

Even though confrontations have so far been limited to standoffs between paramilitary ships and fishing vessels, China’s inexorable naval spending and the vehemence of its sovereignty claims undoubtedly cast a long shadow over its neighbours in the near seas.

And as the spectre of an expansionist China puts the wind in the sails of America’s “return” to East-Asia, Beijing may soon feel the pinch of its increasing regional isolation.

If it responds negatively to this, or if pushed, it will undoubtedly deal profound blows to the foundations of East-Asian stability, whilst putting the future of global security under thick clouds of uncertainty.

Watch this space.

Map source: NPR

Sailors aboard the Chinese Navy destroyer Qingdao. Photo: ©David Rush

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.