China Is Slowly Winning a Long Game for the Sea

By Philip Bowring
JANUARY 28, 1999

HONG KONG: It is hard not to admire China's ability to play a long game on the international stage even while domestic policies are twisting about and instability is in the air.

The past few months have seen China take advantage of regional disorder and economic preoccupations to make the biggest strides since 1995 toward fulfilling its long-term goal of taking over the whole South China Sea. It has done so with remarkably little protest from neighbors, or indeed from major powers which have a vital strategic interest in the sea-lanes.

Far from spurring regional solidarity against China's creeping maritime hegemonism, the moves appear to have exacerbated divisions within the Association of South East Asian Nations. Yet the expansion of ASEAN to include Vietnam, Laos and Burma was speeded up by a desire of the maritime states that entry of Vietnam would enhance regional solidarity.

China has added heavily to its structures on Mischief Reef, a mere 135 nautical miles off the Philippines, which it occupied in 1995. Although it pretends that these are being built by and for fishermen, none of the neighbors doubt their military function. China also appears to have stepped up its naval presence (frigates, supply ships and a research vessel) in the area, which is well within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

The pattern dates to 1992 — offer to talk about the sea and "joint exploitation" with neighbors, while proclaiming total sovereignty and creating new realities when opportunities arise.

The opportunity has been provided by the neighbors' preoccupation with the economic crisis, the gratitude they are supposed to feel for China's defense of currency stability, and the change of government in Manila.

The Philippines is not only militarily the weakest of the littoral states. From China's point of view, its offshore rocks and reefs are the most valuable strategically. The area is not far from small offshore oil fields exploited by the Philippines but claimed by China. And 300 miles to the north are shoals where China has put down a marker; these lie almost due west of Subic Bay and close to the main shipping lane.

The Philippines was clearly undecided on how to respond to the latest Chinese expansion. The government was apparently aware of developments long before it announced them. This limited whatever value diplomatic and international protest might have had.

Some in the Philippines want at least a show of resistance, and an appeal to the United Nations. Others, notably the Foreign Ministry, say that policy toward China cannot be driven just by this issue, and particularly warn against closer ties with Taiwan as a possible antidote. They favor more talks and mutual "confidence-building measures."

President Joseph Estrada wants U.S. involvement, but Manila knows it cannot expect help from its defense pact with the United States. Washington has advised "restraint." A U.S. proposal for an international forum, including itself, is a nonstarter; opposition from Malaysia and Vietnam makes it easy for China to shrug it off.

ASEAN's position looks ever less meaningful. It still talks of diplomatic solutions while Beijing creates facts. China meanwhile refuses to talk on anything other than a bilateral basis with littoral states, successfully brushing off attempts at multilateral discussions.

ASEAN's "plan of action," from its December meeting in Hanoi, calls for a council to resolve potential conflicts. But resolving conflicting sea claims with each other, even if possible, is marginal to the wider issue of China's claim to everything.

Malaysia is currently especially keen on dialogue rather than confrontation with China. It can afford that for now because it has spent enough to build up its own air and naval capability to deter China from making moves in its claimed area, the southernmost part of the South China Sea, which is also the richest in oil.

Vietnam has showed enough willingness since 1992 to resist Chinese encroachments on its southern waters that Beijing has turned its attentions to the Philippines. Manila relied for so long on the U.S. presence that it has scant way of defending itself.

But China will pick off each in turn, just as it grabbed the Paracels from a divided Vietnam in 1974, and used force against a diplomatically isolated Vietnam in 1979 and 1988 to curtail its presence in the Spratlys.

China has come a long way in the South China Sea in 25 years. At this rate the sea will all be Chinese by 2050. The long game will have paid off.


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