China Reverts to Aggressive Stance in the South China Sea

Epoch Times
Gary Feuerberg
22 February 2010

WASHINGTON—At an all-day hearing Feb. 4 on Capitol Hill, U.S. Congress Members and experts from the State and Defense Departments, and academia and non-government organizations, gave testimony on China’s activities in Southeast Asia, and the economic, strategic and security implications for the United States. Concerns by China’s mainland and maritime southern neighbors were discussed regarding China’s increasing willingness to use force and threats to back up its territorial claims.

The hearing was conducted by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which advises the Congress on China’s activities.

“Especially in the South China Sea, China has become increasingly assertive—even provocative—towards its neighbors in regard to maritime issues,” said Dr. Richard Cronin, Henry L. Stimson Center. Dr. Cronin testified that it appears that China is switching back to its pre-1995 stance when it takes up military action to back up its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Since the 1950s, the PRC has claimed most of the South China Sea as Chinese maritime territory,” said Dr. Andrew Scobell, Texas A&M University.

“[Since late 2007] China has increased naval patrols, pressured foreign energy companies to halt operations in contested waters, [taken steps to appropriate the Paracel and Spratly islands,] and unilaterally imposed fishing bans in parts of the sea,” said Bronson Percival, Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). Mr. Percival said that China insists that disputed claims are “bilateral issues,” i.e., between China and a weaker nation, and cannot be handled by “multilateral mechanisms.”

Last year China displayed highly aggressive conduct against US Navy vessels. In March 2009 the U.S. navy ship Impeccable in the South China Sea—in international waters—was interfered with by Chinese vessels and told to leave the area or “suffer the consequences,” testified Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). A similar incident occurred in June with the destroyer USS John S. McCain.

“There can be no mistaking what these moves mean. The [People’s Republic of China] is aggressively signaling through their actions, claiming dominance and control over the South China Sea,” said Rohrabacher. He adds that if China acts in this belligerent way to the U.S., one can only imagine what the threat must be to the countries in the region.

Robert Scher  (l), Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Southeast Asia, U.S.  Department of Defense, and Robert Shear (r), Deputy Assistant Secretary  for Eastern Asia and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
Robert Scher (l), Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Southeast Asia, U.S. Department of Defense, and Robert Shear (r), Deputy Assistant Secretary for Eastern Asia and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State. (Gary Feuerberg/Epoch Times)
“We strongly object to behavior that puts at risk the safety of our vessels and is a clear violation of international norms of behavior in ocean waters outside territorial seas,” stated Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher. He asserted that the U.S. rejects any attempt to restrict the freedom of the seas in EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones). Nearly 40 percent of the world’s oceans lie within the 200 nautical mile EEZs. Consequently, navigational rights must be preserved, according to Scher, for the sake of global economy and international peace.

Even though no standing army threatens China, it is building a massive military, which we ignore at our peril, said Congressman Rohrabacher. He referred to the anti-satellite missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles that China is developing, with the intention of denying us the ability to come to the aid of our regional allies.

According to Commissioner Larry M. Wortzel, who co-chaired this hearing, China’s growing naval capabilities is seen as a potential threat to the countries that have maritime territorial disputes with China—Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan. He said that during the Commission’s visit to Vietnam last December, they heard several times Vietnam’s concerns over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea regarding territories claimed by both nations.

The consensus of all participants at the hearing was that the U.S. should be more engaged in the region and has a vital role in preventing China’s domination of the South China Sea and maintaining free passage of U.S. Armed forces and energy supplies.

ASEAN fears as China trade grows

In the 1990s, the Southeast Asian countries had fearful expectations of what China might do, especially with regard to territories in the South China Sea that China claims. Walter Lohman, director, Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, gave the examples of China’s confrontational actions with the Philippines over the disputed Spratly Islands and the 1995-96 missile crisis in the Taiwan traits. However, China in the late 1990s and in the early years after 2000, began to reverse its image by going on a “charm offensive,” becoming less ideological and emphasizing trade relations over territorial claims.

The five founders of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1967 were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, joined later by Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam. The aim was to bring about the economic, political and cultural integration of the region.

Dr. Ellen L. Frost (l) and Professor Donald  E. Weatherbee (r) answer questions on Capitol Hill on China economic  and strategic interests in SE Asia and the South China Sea.
Dr. Ellen L. Frost (l) and Professor Donald E. Weatherbee (r) answer questions on Capitol Hill on China economic and strategic interests in SE Asia and the South China Sea. (Gary Feuerberg/Epoch Times)
China-ASEAN economic ties are growing each year and are likely to grow further under the China-ASEAN Free Trade (CAFTA) Agreement that became effective this year on Jan.1. Two-way trade between China and the 10 ASEAN countries reached $193 billion in 2008, which passed the U.S.’s $181 billion, and makes China now ASEAN’s third largest trading partner behind the European Union and Japan. “In terms of market size, the CAFTA ranks only behind the European Community and NAFTA,” said Professor Donald E. Weatherbee, University of South Carolina.

“According to the ASEAN Secretariat, trade between ASEAN and China has maintained an average growth of 26 percent a year since 2003,” said Walter Lohman from the Heritage Foundation. “…it can be expected that China’s trade will continue to grow at a faster rate than that of ASEAN’s other trading partners….China is already the largest trading partner of Malaysia and Vietnam and the second largest partner of the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar,” Prof. Weatherbee said.

The increased trade is on the whole welcomed by these nations, but China’s dominance in Asia has made these nations wary of its motives. Because the RMB is undervalued and China is unwilling to revalue it, “ASEAN exports [are] less competitive in global markets and Chinese imports—which will increase with CAFTA—more competitive in ASEAN domestic markets. Vietnam has already found it necessary to devalue its currency and other ASEAN countries, especially Thailand may have to follow suit,” said Professor Weatherbee. He also said that voices in Indonesia, ASEAN largest market, worry that cheaper Chinese imports will lead to massive job loss in the industrial, agricultural and fishery sectors.

The increased involvement of China in trade and investments gives China leverage that it didn’t have before. For example, China’s second ranking official, Xi Jinping, was in Phnom Penh for signing 14 economic assistance agreements between China and Cambodia when the latter country two days later forcibly repatriated 20 ethnic Uyghur refugees, who had been under UNHCR protection, said Professor Weatherbee.

Secretary Clinton: 'the United States is back'

All who testified spoke of the importance of maritime Southeast Asia to China and other nations that depend on navigating through the South China Sea. “The sea lanes that run through Southeast Asia are some of the world’s busiest and most strategically important…Last year 90 percent of foreign oil imported by China went through the Malacca Strait,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David B. Shear.

Yet, the U.S. lacks a clear strategy for the region, according to those who testified.

“Most ASEAN governments are eager for deeper U.S. engagement. During the George W. Bush administration, there was a widespread perception that the United States only cared about fighting terrorism and was indifferent to other Southeast Asian needs,” testified Dr. Ellen Frost, from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The Obama Administration has been making efforts to renew and expand U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. In July 2009 Secretary Clinton signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, reversing the Bush administration and giving a legal basis for US-ASEAN relations. Also in July she attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phuket Thailand, where she announced, “The United States is back.”

“Clinton’s statement was “clearly a response of concern that China’s involvement in the region was potentially destabilizing, especially in the Mekong Basin and the South China Sea,” said Dr. Cronin.

In November President Obama met with the ASEAN-10 during his visit to Singapore and attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leadership Meeting, which was the first meeting of an American president with all of the ASEAN heads of government. And on Feb.1, the White House announced that the President would be traveling to Indonesia and Australia in March.

China’s involvement in destructive infrastructure projects

The majority of Dr. Cronin’s written testimony discusses China’s decision to build eight hydropower dams on the Upper Mekong River, which he says will have devastating environmental effects on the Lower Mekong countries, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. He also blames the latter countries for being short-sighted for pursuing environmentally unsustainable development with plans to build 13 dams on the mainstream of the lower part of the Mekong.

“…the mainstream dams in both the Upper Mekong in China and Lower Mekong in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia [and Vietnam] will have an incalculable impact on human and food security and livelihoods in the whole Mekong Basin,” said Dr. Cronin. Preserving the fish stocks, which many depend upon for their livelihood and diet, is not compatible with mainstream dams.

Commenting in general about China’s aid to Southeast Asian nations, Ernest Z. Bower, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) said:

“Too often, Chinese funds are used to build unnecessary projects that serve political rather than practical requirements. These projects support local politicians rather than practical requirements.”

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