January 24, 2014 | Issue Brief on Asia and the Pacific
Over the past several months, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has exploited more and more tools to reinforce its claims over much of the East Asian littoral. The intended Chinese message seems clear: Administratively, militarily, diplomatically, and economically, the East Asian littoral is under Chinese dominance.
Ironically, even as the Chinese have been accelerating their efforts at dominating the East Asian littoral, the U.S. appears to be backing away. Despite the much-touted “pivot to Asia,” the Obama Administration has spent far more time on trying to broker Arab–Israeli peace than looking to stabilize East Asia. That Beijing’s concept of security—and, as important, whom it is providing security for—may not align with American hopes and interests appears lost.
The PRC’s most recent move was the announcement by the Hainan government that it would enforce the requirement that foreign fishing boats obtain clearance from the central government to fish in Chinese-claimed waters of the South China Sea. This announcement follows previous moves that place almost the entire South China Sea under Chinese administrative control, such as the elevation of Sansha city to prefecture level—with the Spratlys, Paracels, and Macclesfield Bank all underneath it—and the incorporation of the South China Sea in passport maps of China.
Mediation efforts in this regard have been either rejected by Beijing or slow-rolled for many years. The Philippines, consistent with the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, which both Manila and Beijing have signed, has submitted the legality of China’s claims for arbitration. Not only has China refused to participate in the arbitration effort, but it has condemned the Philippine effort. Many interpret China’s paltry aid and decision to delay dispatching a hospital ship in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan as further signaling Beijing’s displeasure.
China’s declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea neatly aligns with China’s claims for its maritime exclusive economic zone. The ADIZ announcement came amid ongoing tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkakus, with Japanese and Chinese maritime law enforcement and coast guard vessels regularly operating in close proximity. Beijing appears to be ignoring the potential for miscalculation and inadvertent escalation in the air and waters around the islands. At the same time, by incorporating the disputed undersea mount of Ieyodo within the ADIZ, Beijing brought South Korea into the dispute over the zone.
The ADIZ decision may signal a greater willingness to employ military signaling to underscore Chinese claims. At the end of 2013, the Chinese dispatched their new aircraft carrier Liaoning to a new carrier facility at Sanya on Hainan island, marking its first operations away from the North Sea Fleet anchorages where it has tended to sail. During its transit, the Chinese also nearly collided with the USS Cowpens as they sought to herd the U.S. ship away from the Chinese carrier—accusing the U.S. ship of operating in too close proximity, 60 miles from the Chinese flattop.
The Chinese aircraft carrier is smaller than any U.S. Nimitz-class super-carrier, but it is far larger than any combatant in any Southeast Asian navy. And the willingness to engage in dangerous ship maneuvers hearkens back to the 2009 incidents involving the USNS Impeccable, USNS Victorious, and USS John S. McCain III.
Beijing further reinforced its message, either deliberately or coincidentally, with the test of a hypersonic missile capable of evading American missile defenses. The system might constitute the warhead for the often-discussed anti-ship ballistic missile system aimed at U.S. aircraft carriers and is certainly part of the larger portfolio of Chinese “anti-access/area denial” capabilities.
In light of Beijing’s growing assertiveness, the U.S. needs to make clear to both the PRC and its allies that it will maintain a firm, reliable presence in the region and that this extends beyond mere rhetoric. Moreover, given China’s economic prowess, it is essential that any American response encompass not only military measures but the full array of diplomatic and positive economic levers as well.
—Dean Cheng is a Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
The Economist, “Hai Handed,” January 13, 2014, http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2014/01/south-china-sea (accessed January 23, 2014).
Republic of the Philippines, “Statement by the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs on the UNCLOS Arbitral Proceedings Against China,” January 22, 2013, https://www.dfa.gov.ph/index.php/2013-06-27-21-50-36/unclos/216-sfa-statement-on-the-unclos-arbitral-proceedings-against-china (accessed January 23, 2014).
Xinhua, “China Reiterates Opposition to Philippines Arbitration Bid,” February 20, 2013, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-02/20/c_132181037.htm (accessed January 23, 2014); and Xinhua, “China’s Refusal of Arbitration Request by Philippines Meets International Law,” August 30, 2013, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90883/8383304.html (accessed January 23, 2014).
David Bosco, “Why Is China Giving the Philippines the Cold Shoulder?,” Foreign Policy, November 13, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/11/12/why_is_china_giving_the_philippines_the_cold_shoulder_typhoon_relief (accessed January 23, 2014).
James R. Holmes, “How the U.S. Lost the South China Sea Standoff,” The Diplomat, December 19, 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/how-the-us-lost-the-south-china-sea-standoff/ (accessed January 23, 2014).
Agence France-Presse, “China Tested Hypersonic Missile Vehicle: U.S. Officials,” January 15, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/china-tested-hypersonic-missile-vehicle-us-officials-013222240.html (accessed January 23, 2014).
Elizabeth Redden, “U.S. Answer to Confucius Institutes,” Inside Higher Ed, November 2, 2012, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/11/02/colleges-open-state-department-funded-american-cultural-centers-china (accessed January 23, 2014).