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of submarine commissionings some 260 per cent between 2003 and 2012, whilst simultaneously transforming its previously outdated battleship force into a vast fleet of modern frigates, destroyers and amphibious vessels.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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.