Beijing crosses a line
The PLA's garrison in the South China Sea could further inflame tensions.


Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march during an open day at the Ngong Shuen Chau Naval Base on Hong Kong's Stonecutters Island July 28, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Washington must decide how to respond to Beijing's growing assertiveness.

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  • Beijing's moves confirm recent fears of how China’s would act now that it’s strong enough to challenge other Asian states.

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  • The State Department has so far shown no inclination even to change its rhetoric in the face of China's actions.

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By unilaterally creating a prefectural-level city government and installing a military garrison on a disputed island in the South China Sea, Beijing has further inflamed tensions and made a negotiated settlement to region's territorial disputes less likely. In particular, the decision to emphasize military measures in this ongoing diplomatic quarrel should worry those who argued that the growth of China's military power in recent decades was non-threatening and the natural action of a rising power.

The credibility of the Obama Administration's "pivot" to China is being tested, and Washington must decide how to respond to Beijing's growing assertiveness. To simply leave far weaker neighboring states to face China alone risks surrendering our influence in Asia and possibly making conflict more likely.

Beijing's action puts the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank under the control of a new city called Sansha, along with a mayor and 45 deputies sitting in a People's Congress. While there are approximately 1,100 Chinese citizens living on these islands, they are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China has steadfastly refused to have these competing claims addressed in a multilateral setting, such as through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Indeed, after their most recent meeting, Asean ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué on South China Sea issues for the first time in nearly half a century. This was the result of Cambodia's sensitivity to Beijing's demand that any territorial disputes be solved on a solely bilateral basis.

While all claimants in the South China Sea have minor military outposts on many of their islands, Beijing's announcement that it is creating a new garrison commanded by two senior officers presents a further challenge to those looking for a diplomatic solution. Woody Island, the site of the new garrison, is claimed by Vietnam as well, and tensions between Beijing and Hanoi have reached new heights in recent months over Vietnamese moves to explore the oil-rich seabed off its coast. It is not yet known how big the military garrison will be, nor whether it will contain combat troops.

Woody Island is barely big enough for an airstrip, a manmade feature that Taiwan and the Philippines have built on two of the Spratly Islands. While the Philippines and Vietnam occupy more islands in the Spratlys, it is nonetheless significant when China makes a public announcement that it will have a permanent forward-deployed military force within striking distance of such contested waters. From the perspective even of smaller nations that have a few soldiers on coral reefs, Beijing is the only nation in Asia that could turn the clock back to old rules of international behavior, where might makes right, and international law is irrelevant to those bold enough to challenge fortune and ignore the concerns of the international community.

At another level, Beijing's moves last week seem to confirm the fears of some who worried about how China would act once it became strong enough to challenge other states in Asia. Would economic growth, military strength and political influence lead to a China more confident in its standing and therefore more willing to submit itself to norms of international behavior, or would it simply allow Beijing to double down on its outsized territorial claims?

Yet if Beijing thought that its new garrison would lead other nations to roll over, it has miscalculated, at least for the moment. The Philippines has indicated no willingness to back down, and President Benigno Aquino said he will purchase new attack helicopters and surface ships in order to defend its claims. Vietnam has sought new partners, including the United States, with which it held its first naval exercises earlier this year. The danger of course is that such attempts to maintain a credible defensive posture will lead to a heightened risk of conflict, either accidental or deliberate.

Much of this ardor may cool in coming decades as Hanoi and Manila look at China's long-term staying power, and realize they are no match for it militarily. It is not impossible to imagine that public opinion would tire of the constant tension and demand the recall of the tiny forces on territory far away. That would leave China a freer hand to press other claims, on resource exploration and exploitation, for example, and perhaps even on freedom of navigation for ships in waters claimed as historically Chinese.

Perhaps Beijing will not exploit its position that much. Yet the hardening of positions in the South China Sea is a problem for Washington, given its much vaunted "rebalancing" to Asia. The State Department has so far shown no inclination even to change its rhetoric in the face of China's actions, simply reiterating that a mutually cooperative diplomacy must solve what has now become even more of a machtpolitik challenge. Continuing such a stance, while China increases its troops in the South China Sea, will serve only to erode American credibility in Asia.

As a first step, Washington should threaten to cut off military-to-military dialogue until it gets answers on how large the garrison will be. If China increases the size of its garrison and further intimidates its neighbors, the U.S. should consider postponing future annual Security and Economic Dialogues, which so far have produced little except press releases. Third, Washington should come up with a concrete plan to provide enhanced intelligence and military aid to nations threatened by China's military presence.

At best, these moves might force Beijing to realize that a truly negotiated settlement is the only way forward. At a minimum, they would show America recognizes the way China is attempting to unilaterally shape the future of the world's most important waterway.


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