China is showing itself to be a unifying force in Asia – uniting various countries against Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea.
On Monday, Malaysian officials announced they would register a complaint against a Chinese coast guard ship that ventured into their country’s territorial waters north of Borneo.
On Tuesday, Japan and the Philippines announced plans for a joint search-and-rescue exercise involving military aircraft later this month. The announcement followed a trip by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III to Tokyo last weekend, which could pave the way for Japanese aircraft and ships to refuel at Philippines military bases.
Last week, Reuters reported that Vietnam – amid tense relations with China – was talking to U.S. and European military contractors about possibly purchasing fighter jets, maritime patrol planes and unarmed drones.
Over the last several months, China’s expansion of artificial islands in the South China Sea has widely been seen as a blow to U.S. foreign policy, which seems unable to keep Beijing in check. Yet increasingly, China’s actions are prompting its neighbors to explore new security arrangements with each other, which Chinese leaders have long sought to avoid.
“For China, it could end up being a Pyrrhic victory in the long run,” Denny Roy, a security analyst at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. Beijing’s hopes of extracting concessions from other Asian countries could be thrown into doubt “if the result is improved security cooperation, with China as the unstated adversary,” he said.
China has made historical claims to about 80 percent of the South China Sea, a claim many analysts dismiss as ludicrous. Until recently, China hadn’t aggressively pursued those claims, but that changed in 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power.
In May 2014, Chinese and Vietnamese boats clashed over an oil rig that China had placed 120 miles off Vietnam’s coast. While Beijing removed the rig two months later, it heated up tensions with Hanoi, which had fought a month-long land war against China in 1979.
Yet the biggest conflict has come in the Spratly Islands, claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries. There, China is using dozens of dredgers to build large artificial islands and landing strips on what once were mere reefs poking from the water. Last month, when a U.S. surveillance plane carrying a CNN crew flew over some of the islands, the Chinese navy issued urgent warnings to back off, a signal that China may be attempting to create a restricted flight zone over parts of the South China Sea.
Roy, of the East-West Center, said he was initially unsure whether China’s actions were a response to provocations by the Philippines and Vietnam, which have been engaged in their own island-building schemes but on a much smaller scale. Now, he’s increasingly persuaded that Xi and other Chinese leaders have expansionist plans, “so they can settle the issues on their terms,” he said.
By “settling,” said Roy, Beijing seems to be seeking bilateral agreements with each of the South China Sea claimants, without the United States being involved.
For its part, China disputes that its South China Sea island expansion is about asserting military strength. Foreign Ministry and defense officials say the artificial islands would be used for variety of purposes, including ensuring maritime safety and assistance.
Yet at the same time, China’s propaganda organs have issued frequent warnings that the United States or any other country should stay away from its internal affairs. “We do not want a military conflict with the United States, but if the conflict has to come, we should accept it,” a Beijing-based newspaper, Huanqiu, wrote in a May 25 editorial.
China regularly uses the term “land reclamation” to refer to its activities in the South China Sea. Writing in the Diplomat, an online magazine that covers Asian affairs, Australian security analyst Carl Thayer recently took the media and others to task for adopting that term.
“No, China is not reclaiming land. China is building forward staging bases on artificial islands for its fishing fleet, oil and gas exploration vessels and maritime law enforcement vessels,” wrote Thayer, who has who taught at the Australian Defense Force Academy and other institutions. “When China completes building its infrastructure, including long-range radar, it will be only a matter of time before military aircraft and naval warships make their appearance.”
On Monday in Germany, the Group of Seven nations issued a statement about tensions in the East and South China seas and called for countries to abide by international law. Although the G-7 didn’t single out China by name, Beijing took offense, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman urging the group to “respect the facts, abandon prejudice (and) stop making irresponsible remarks.”
Malaysia’s concerns about China, first reported Monday by The Wall Street Journal, involve a Chinese coast guard ship that was recently anchored at Luconia Shoals, some 93 miles north of Malaysian Borneo. The Journal quoted Malaysian National Security Minister Shahidan Kassim as saying China has no overlapping claims on the area and that Prime Minister Najib Razak would raise the issue directly with Xi, China’s president.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, announced last month that Russia and China would hold joint military exercises in the South China Sea sometime next year.
“We are concerned by U.S. policies in the region, especially since every day it becomes increasingly focused on a systemic containment of Russia and China,” Antonov said during a visit to Singapore for a conference.