China is rolling up its sleeves and showing off

Jonathan Manthorpe,
Vancouver Sun
Friday, December 21, 2007

After years of reassuring its neighbours that China's growth to superpower status would be a "peaceful rise," Beijing is feeling confident enough of its muscle to take the gloves off.

A startling result of China's displays of bullish self-confidence has been a series of anti-Beijing demonstrations in neighbouring Vietnam.

In an authoritarian state like Vietnam, these demonstrations in mid-December aimed at China's embassy in Hanoi and its consulate in the southern commercial centre of Ho Chi Minh City could not have happened without government approval and organization.

These protests stem from massive military exercises by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) in November when it simulated invasions of islands in the South China Sea, several of which are claimed by Vietnam.

The Hanoi government was further outraged when it was learned that Beijing is in the process of establishing a new municipality called Sansha under Hainan Island province. This will have theoretical jurisdiction over islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos in the South China Sea that are claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

China's actions are a return to its past aggressive assertions of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea after a decade of cooperative development with other littoral states of the oil and gas reserves under the sea.

Although diplomatic and economic relations between China and Vietnam have been positive in recent years, they have a long history of enmity.

In 1979, there was a short, sharp border war when China invaded Vietnam but met its match and the PLA was given a very bloody nose.

In 1988, there was a fierce naval battle over possession of some islets called Johnson's Reef, which the Chinese won.

The tone of the discourse between Beijing and Hanoi in the last few days has been reminiscent of those earlier confrontations.

"Things happened in Vietnam recently which damaged the relationship between the two countries," Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week in reference to the anti-Chinese demonstrations.

The face-off with Vietnam in the context of Beijing's more assertive stance in Asia will raise eyebrows and anxieties in Southeast Asia when China has been at pains in the last few years to press home the message that its rising economic, political and military power are no threat to its neighbours.

But Beijing doesn't seem to feel it has to bother with such genteel assurances anymore.

Another aspect of the November war games was the abrupt withdrawal of permission for the United States aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and its battle group to spend the Thanksgiving holiday at Hong Kong. Other U.S. ship visits to Hong Kong, a commonplace since the Second World War, were also cancelled.

This action by Beijing was a reprisal for Washington's decision to sell an updated missile defence package to Taiwan, which Beijing claims to own and threatens to invade.

Beijing has embarked on a massive and expensive modernization of the PLA since the early 1990s, when television reports of the first Gulf War showed how far behind the technological abilities of the U.S. military China had fallen.

The first aim of China's military modernization has been to be able to frustrate Washington's ability to aid the defence of Taiwan, but Beijing's power projection aspirations now appear to go well beyond that.

But while doing this, the Beijing government has been careful to boost cooperation and minimize confrontation with the U.S.

The Kitty Hawk incident and recent trade talks, when Beijing rebuffed even more forcefully than in the past Washington's insistence that the Chinese currency is undervalued, suggests buttering up the U.S. government is not a priority anymore.

And Beijing has been similarly abrasive with the German government, for giving a fulsome reception to the leader of the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama, and with the European Union for complaining about Chinese trade practices.

The assertive spring in China's step has been increasingly evident since January, when the PLA used a missile to destroy a satellite in space.

This was followed by the launching of a lunar probe, suggesting the PLA no longer feels outclassed by anyone.

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