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of submarine commissionings some 260 per cent between 2003 and 2012, whilst simultaneously transforming its previously outdated battleship force into a vast fleet of modern frigates, destroyers and amphibious vessels.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

Show Hide image

Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories