A new report from a Brussels-based think tank says Chinese government agencies are worsening tensions in the South China Sea because they do not have a consistent policy in the disputed region.
As tensions grow between China and other countries in the South China Seas, analysts say Chinese governmental agencies with little experience in foreign affairs are jockeying for power with each other, presenting an inconsistent policy in the disputed territory.
The International Crisis Group – or ICG – says China has increased tension over the dispute by highlighting Beijing’s historical claims, raising nationalist sentiment.
Stephanie Kleine Ahlbrandt, the China and Northeast Asia Policy Director for the ICG in Beijing, says the growing U.S. military presence in the region has also upset the balance of power amongst regional countries.
“This raises the stakes in the entire region. It’s beyond the South China Seas, in places like Myanmar, in places like India,” Ahlbrandt said. “And this profoundly disturbs China because China feels like it’s China’s region, and they’ve responded by engaging in more military build up which is sort of a circle whereby these countries feel more afraid and then they ask the U.S. to come in.”
The United States has long held annual military exercises with countries in the region, but those efforts have come under new scrutiny with the South China Sea tensions.
Earlier this month the U.S. and Philippines held annual naval drills, and China and Russia have begun their own joint military exercises in the region.
Huang Jing is a professor and director of the Center on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore.
“We have two centers. China as an economic center, the United States and her allies as a security center,” explained Huang. “As a result all the countries are caught in this dilemma. Economically they have no choice but to go with China because China has become the largest trade partner to every country in this region, even Japan and South Korea who are American allies. On the other hand they know that the United States still holds supreme power in terms of military capability.”
Asian countries have been buying arms at a record pace in recent years, worrying some about a military buildup. But so far, confrontations have mainly involved civilian vessels and fishing fleets.
Ahlbrandt says the boats are easier to deploy, making confrontations and skirmishes more common.
“So what you have is kind of a quasi Coast Guard arms race going on and that’s dangerous because navies are generally more threatening but are harder to deploy,” she said.
Thousands of fishermen earn their livelihoods in the South China Seas. But because of overfishing, pollution and the race to feed Asia’s growing populations, fishermen are increasingly pushing out far from the coasts into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
While China’s growing economic and military power may lead it to increasingly stake out territorial claims, Ahlbrandt says many countries, such as Vietnam, are showing increased aggressiveness in the region.
“I think it should also be noted that China’s behavior in the South China Seas is largely reactionary because other claimants that are driven by similar factors are also stepping up their territorial claims and economic activities in disputed waters,” Ahlbrandt said.
Countries in the region have tried to resolve the disputes through talks, and agreeing on a code of conduct in the region has long been a goal of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, these efforts have done little to resolve the territorial disputes. Meanwhile, countries have stoked nationalist sentiment over the issue, making it even harder to find a solution.
“Any negotiation over territorial issues will have to involve compromise,” she noted, “it’s just that these actors, including the Philippines and Vietnam will have a difficult time explaining to their public, who have been imbued for decadees with some of the sense that some of these maritime areas are theirs, that the government has to compromise on these things.”
This month China and the Philippines have been engaged in a standoff near a the Scarborough Shoal – a disputed territory that both claim as their own. One Chinese newspaper has warned of small scale war against the Philippines over the waterway. Huang Jing says this tough talk is driven by China’s domestic political dynamics.
“As China is getting into this leadership transition period, all of the ruling elite members are geared up for this transition. So as a result, few of them can afford to appear soft in terms of national interests such as in the South China seas,” Huang said.
As China prepares for the transition of power at the National Party Congress this November, the harsh rhetoric and aggressive comments over the disputed region are likely to continue.R Soft Web Hosting