China's hegemony

China’s rise in the past decades has been extraordinary. It has grown to become an economic powerhouse and a military giant. But, as the country has grown and evolved from the shackles of its past, the manner in which it has gone about its rise has been viewed as aggressive.

Naturally, a country on its path of super economic growth requires maintaining a continued and sustained standard of performance, for which it requires resources–monetary, political, diplomatic, geo-strategic, and military. China has demonstrated a steady consolidation of all these aspects.

However, commensurate with this is its increasingly imperialistic and aggressive policy of expansion at any cost. Its idea of expansion is not limited to becoming the world’s sole economic power by 2030. It is also linked with expanding geographically. Thus China’s claims in the South China Sea and now the East China Sea, as baffling as they may be, signal an attempt by Beijing to consolidate control over the immensely strategic sea routes and territorial regions ranging from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Western Pacific.

If one considers the trajectory of Chinese occupations, claims and attempts to gain territory in the past four decades, it becomes clear that while resources (which are strategically required by an evolving economy to sustain growth) are the highest priority, maintaining sole control over the most strategic sea routes of the world will provide China with the regional hegemony it desperately seeks to be able to conquer the economic and hegemonic pinnacles that a country must achieve to become the only power in the world.

This is why the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea have turned into an international flashpoint. Chinese leaders insist with increasing defiance that the islands, rocks and reefs that constitute it have been ‘China’s historical territory since ancient times’. Ever since China has begun asserting their claims on these islands in entirety, often in an imposing manner, rival claimant countries have voiced concerns. This has created and upsurge in tensions, turning the region into a hotspot with global consequences.

Resource rich region

The reason why these islands are strategic is because of the fishing lanes around the archipelagos, the potential exploitation of suspected crude oil and natural gas and the strategic control of important shipping lanes. There has been little detailed exploration. However, while Chinese officials estimate the possible oil reserves at 213 billion barrels, the American scientists have estimated the amount at 28 billion barrels only; while the real wealth of the area is in the natural gas reserves which it believes stands at 900 trillion cubic feet.

China claims the largest portion of the South China Sea-an area defined by the self created-‘nine-dashed line’ which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southern province of Hainan. Citing ancient history as their justification for claiming these islands, China issued a map in 1947 detailing its claims. Thus the ‘nine-dashed line’ engulfed the two island groups as part of Chinese territory.

These claims are mirrored by Taiwan because Taiwan considers itself independent of China. The other major claimant in the area is Vietnam, which claims these islands in entirety as well. Philippines, which is geographically closer to the Spratly Islands claims a part of the island group.

Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to some territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea).

There is no doubt that China, with its increasingly aggressive stand on territorial disputes has intentionally or otherwise orchestrated a situation where in a face-off becomes inevitable.

Consider the case of the Paracel Islands (known as Quan Dao Hoang Sa in Vietnam and Xisha Qundao in China), which is claimed by the China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

It is a group of a total of thirty uninhabited islets, sandbanks and reefs. The archipelago lies roughly 200 nautical miles from the nearest mainland shores, equidistant from Vietnamese and Chinese coastlines. Because these islands have had no native population, the ownership has been frequently disputed.

However, tensions escalated when China adopted a muscular approach to occupy the Paracel islands. Following the Vietnam War, as US troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1974; China invaded the Paracel Islands, which were held by the US-backed South Vietnamese regime. More than 70 Vietnamese soldiers died during the invasion and China has controlled the island chain ever since.

This was a terrible loss for Vietnam, both moral and territorial. This year 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of China’s illegal occupation of the Paracel Islands, despite the fact that Vietnam is its rightful owner.

A small group of islands, Paracel, are located approximately 200 nautical miles due east of Danang. And, although too small to be inhabited by a permanent population, they were never-the-less an important historical and strategic possession of Vietnam. This claim of sovereignty dates back centuries. However, the Peoples Republic of China felt they could displace this claim based upon a proclamation made by them in September 1958, and acknowledged by then North Vietnamese Prime Minister. This was a mere Chinese propaganda.

Contradicting this disputed proclamation, the South Vietnamese Government continued to maintain a small weather observation garrison on Pattle Island, the largest island in this group. And no action was initiated by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) to displace this presence.

Aggressive posture  

Exactly four decades ago a bloody war was fought by Asian giant China and its neighbor Vietnam (then South Vietnam) over the control of the disputed Paracel Islands group. Even after 40 years of China’s control over the Paracel Islands, which were incorporated into Hainan province by Beijing, the problem is not solved as Taiwan and Vietnam still reject China’s sovereignty over these 30 or so islets, sandbanks and reefs.

Vietnam and China locked horns in another contested spot in the Spratly Islands, known as the Johnson South Reef. In 1988, the two sides again got into a naval battle with Vietnam losing terribly, this time losing around 60 sailors.

Again in 2011, a Vietnamese ship had its cables cut by Chinese patrol boats while conducting an underwater survey of the South China Sea. The aftermath of the battle also saw China consolidating its first six holdings in the Spratly’s.

Vietnam isn’t the only claimant country that China has exerted its impositions on. After managing to occupy the Paracel Islands, China stepped up its offensive in the remaining Spratly islands. Next, it got into a face-off with Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal.

At the Scarborough Shoal, Philippine’s warships entered into a stand-off with two Chinese surveillance vessels when a Philippines Navy surveillance plane spotted several Chinese fishing vessels at Scarborough. Philippines promptly deployed its largest warship, the BRG Gregorio del Pilar after which the Filipino sailors boarded the Chinese vessels for inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected corals and live sharks. Later, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships positioned themselves around the Filipino warship, preventing the arrests.

China has long been accused of using its fishing vessels as proxies for its Navy to deploy its presence in the South China Sea. There has even been evidence that although typically, vessels have no official connection with the military, foreign officials have indicated at coordination between their activities with China’s Navy, despite the fact that this practice is illegal, according to international maritime laws.

China also entered into another territorial spat with Indonesia over the Natuna Islands.

In July 2012 China created Sansha city with its headquarters in the Paracels which it says oversees Chinese territory in the South China Sea. In the same year, China granted its border patrol police in Hainan the power to board and search foreign ships stopping in its waters.

Such skirmishes reiterate the theory that China is building up its unchallenged hold on the island groups in the South China Sea while asserting sovereignty (based on questionable historic claims), through an intensified presence at sea with both naval and paramilitary fleets, ready to charge at countries who are less capable of asserting their claims in the face of a superior power exerting its untenable force upon them.

After the South China Sea, China has now moved to press its claims in the East China Sea. There, it is locked in territorial disputes with Japan over the heavily contested Senkaku Islands and with South Korea over the Leodo Rocks.

The Island row is one that can transform the region into a battlefield. Ties between the two countries have remained strained over the territorial row, threatening immense instability in the region, with the ability to alter the Balance of Power forever.

The islands are uninhabited rocks which have a total area of about 7 sq. km. and lie North-east of Taiwan, East of Chinese Mainland and South-West of Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa. Currently, the islands are controlled by Japan. They matter because they are close to important shipping lanes, have rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves.

They are also strategically placed. Okinawa is where US military presence is and amidst increasing competition between USA and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region, the islands are obviously important, also with possibility of having large oil and natural gas resources deposits.

There have also been face-offs between Japanese patrol boats and Chinese or Taiwanese fishing vessels. In September 2010, Japan seized a Chinese trawler and its crew after it collided with two coast guard vessels near the islands, sparking a serious diplomatic row.

Then, in April 2012, a fresh row ensued after Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner. The Japanese government reached a deal to buy three of the islands from the owner to block his plan and nationalized the islands. The move angered China.  Since then, Chinese government ships have sailed in and out of what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands on many occasions.

China’s ADIZ

However, the biggest altercation of the status-quo has been the Chinese announcement of the creation of a new Air Defense Identification Zone in 2013, which would demand any aircraft in the zone to comply with a number of rules laid down by Beijing. The area covers the airspace above the disputed islands, and also overlaps with Japan’s and Korea’s claimed air-defence zone.

A day after the announcement, China conducted two aerial patrols over the area. It sent Tu-154 and Y-8 aircrafts, prompting the Japanese Air Self-defence Force to send two F-15 Fighter Jets to intercept them. Later, South Korea and Japan sent their surveillance aircrafts into the area in the East China Sea. Joining its regional allies in condemning China’s decision to establish the zone, USA also defied Beijing by flying two B-52 bombers through the area three days after China’s announcement.

The ADIZ significantly escalates tensions not only in the airspace, but also the maritime zones in the region because China’s outline of the ADIZ seems to be a direct result of the ongoing disputes in the sea. This has great ramifications for the security architecture in the region.

Though many analysts believe that Beijing’s move is not intended to spark any aerial confrontations but rather, is a long term strategy to solidify claims to disputed territories by simply marking the area as its own, the zone is seen primarily as China’s latest aggressive bid to bolster its claim over the Senkaku Islands. Sooner or later it is expected that China’s ADIZ will also be applicable in South China Sea.

For South Korea, the problem is that China’s ADIZ overlaps with its ADIZ. Also included within the Chinese zone is the South Korea controlled rock known as Leodo rock in South Korea and Suyan in China, the ownership of which has been historically disputed between the two.

Normally the overlapping territorial claims to sovereignty and maritime boundaries have to be resolved through a combination of customary international law, proper legal procedures with the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or arbitration under Annex VII of the UNCLOS.

While China has ratified UNCLOS, the treaty by and large rejects claims that are based on historic evidence, the type that Beijing periodically asserts to push its interests. Many experts have concluded that China’s historic claims over the South China Sea that imply sovereign authority are invalid.

In addition, many experts have noticed that China’s claims on the island groups on the basis of ancient historic claims falls flat because empires back then simply did not exercise sovereignty. Unlike a nation-state, which uses the idea of sovereignty over its territorial area, the concept of sovereignty did not exist in ancient times. Chinese empires were not carefully demarcated, a position it has held while asserting its claims over land disputes with countries like India, Burma, and Vietnam, which stands in sharp contrast with its claim in maritime disputes.

China has often been accused of writing and re-writing history from a nationalistic perspective to suit its claims as and when it has desired. Invoking history from a nationalist perspective to promote national unity and regime legitimacy has been a practice of Chinese rulers. The Chinese leadership uses the state apparatus of media to infuse nationalistic tendencies in its people.

Also, since there are many claimants in SCS, the disputes are, by definition, multilateral disputes requiring international attention. But Beijing has insisted that these disputes are bilateral in order to catch its opponents in the middle of their baseless historic rhetoric and growing military and economic power.

They have also interpreted the UNCLOS as and how it suits their interests. While it refuses to adhere to the UNCLOS in the South China Sea dispute, citing the fact that they have their own law in order on the same, in the East China Sea dispute over the Senkaku islands, it is regularly referring to the UNCLOS for the continental shelf practice.

This claim is not valid because according to article 76, par. 1. of the UNCLOS, the continental shelf extends to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baseline measures from the outer edge of the continental margin.  Thus China’s claims fall flat again, because its claim over Mischief Reef, which lies 600 miles from Hainan Island but only 130 miles from Philippines Island makes Philippines more eligible to claim the territory than China.

In fact, even in that regard, the UNCLOS only speaks of delimitation and not settling of maritime disputes. The UNCLOS also provides no legal foundations to support the claim of the ‘nine-dashed line’ that covers 1.94 million square kilometer of the South China Sea. Even then, on the basis of this claim, China has built numerous artificial structures on these islands which is illegal under Article 121 of the UNCLOS.

At a recent conference organized by CASS- India (Center for Asian Strategic Studies) in New Delhi, one of the distinguished speakers, Dr Faisal Ahmed mentioned that if the UNCLOS was being used by China to assert its claims in a contradictory manner, it would then be required that the UNCLOS be revised so that such issues relating to resource rich areas do not occur.

Another distinguished speaker, Prof G Vijayachandra Naidu highlighted an interesting observation about the manner in which China goes about asserting its claims. He explained that “China uses most vulnerable and weakest moments when it aggressively pushes its claims”. When it occupied Tibet in 1950, it was during the cold war, when the USSR backed China. In 1962 as well, when India didn’t expect it at all is when they got into war in India. In 1988, when Cold War was ending and Vietnam was ravaged by war is when China entered Vietnam and had a clash with it. Then in 1994, the Philippines was most vulnerable with little help from USA when it occupied Scarborough Shoal.

Grand strategy

On the issue of China’s ADIZ, it becomes important to understand the timing and calculation that has gone behind such an announcement because only then can one understand the disputes in terms of its perspective and possible actions in the future.

According to Mr A B Mahapatra, Director, CASS-India ‘China’s newly announced ADIZ makes it important to look at the East China Sea dispute  and South China Sea disputes in retrospective and perspective because, if we look at the issues in totality, then one can see a broader strategy’. He also added that “the ADIZ has roots in the territorial dispute, although the real purpose of the declaration of the ADIZ hasn’t been declared.’’

The question arises as to why China has setup the ADIZ now. Perhaps, it could be an attempt to divert attention from the emerging divide between the politburo’s conservatives and liberals.

It is understood that the People’s Liberation Army, the PLA is really marginalized, even in the politburo. The fact that three top leaders of China included South-East Asian countries in their international trips to woo them is possibly an attempt to isolate Japan in the region. According to Prof G Naidu, Japan has also become an easy target because it is a declining power. There is also a lot of public opposition to militarization in Japan which could make it vulnerable.

Whether there is a possibility of a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea seems to depend on how effective the current ADIZ can prove for China’s interests. But, as of now, China would not want to risk its interests by attracting too much international attention to its activities in the South China Sea.

It would rather use the charm offensive and negotiate at a bilateral level with the less powerful countries by providing economic incentives so that it can carry out its activities subtly. However, such a move could limit the move of countries that are seeking US cooperation in China’s backyard, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, as the proposed ADIZ could limit their movements.

Also, with the USA’ ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, China would want to bide its time and understand exactly what role USA will play in the region so that it can calculate its moves on time.

In any case, from the recent activities of China in Asia, the Indian Ocean Region, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Western Pacific, it has become evident that China wants to have a legitimate control over all territorial gains from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific.

China also needs to secure its SLOC’s to play a more dominant role and also be able to carry out the operations of maritime missions. China’s strategic interests are in the area that meets South China Sea with the Western Pacific Ocean, so that its sea denial strategy is complete. Thus what we could be looking for in the future of the region is a complete realignment of the balance of power and strategic calculations in the Asia-Pacific region.