Courcy's Intelligence Brief - 17 April 2013

A dialogue of the deaf in East Asia

No subscriber to this service will have been surprised by the tone of China’s latest white paper on defence, published on 16 April.  But its very predictability serves only to increase its significance, not to diminish it.  As we have been arguing for months, Beijing seems to have developed an almost total indifference as to what its neighbours think about its actions, and the white paper reinforces this point.  Not surprisingly, China’s neighbours are reacting to its words and actions in ways that only exacerbate the differences, and it is difficult to see how this cycle can be broken in the absence of a change of heart from China.  But there is no sign that this will come with the new leadership.  On the contrary, new president Xi Jinping appears to be an enthusiastic supporter of the more belligerent approach.

A week before the publication of the white paper, on 9 April, Xi made an inspection of China’s South Sea fleet in Sanya, shortly after paying an unprecedented visit to fishermen who ply their trade in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.  Among the ships inspected by Xi was the Jinggangshan amphibious landing ship, just back from a 16-day drill and patrol mission in the South China Sea during which time it visited James Shoal, right on the outer limits of China’s controversial “nine-dash line”, its unilateral demarcation of territory that includes waters claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.  James Shoal is on the Borneo continental shelf and just 80km north-west of the Malaysian province of Sarawak.  During Xi’s inspection visit, he urged sailors and soldiers to “integrate their personal goals with the aim of building a strong military” and to “nurture fighting spirit”.

Two days after this visit, China’s State Ocean Administration published a blueprint on maritime development which pledged increased protection for China’s maritime rights through further investment in boats and planes and through continued campaigns to protect fisheries vessels in the South and East China Seas. 

Increased exploration for gas was also mentioned, along with tax incentives for developing China’s maritime economy.

Then, on 16 April, the day the white paper was released, the official news agency Xinhua announced the taking into service of the country’s “largest and most-advanced patrol vessel…Haixun 01”.  It described Haixun 01 as “the first Chinese vessel to incorporate marine inspection, safety monitoring, rescue, and oil-spill detection and handling”.  The 129-metre boat can sail 10,000 nautical miles without refuelling.

The headlines from the white paper included: a swipe at the United States for being a destabilizing factor in East Asia (“frequently making the situation…tenser” by strengthening its “Asia-Pacific military alliances”); an indication that China intends to expand the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to protect overseas interests; and a pledge to continue developing China’s navy as “an essential national development strategy to exploit, utilise, and protect the seas and oceans and build China into a maritime power”.  It accused Japan of “making trouble” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The official People’s Liberation Army Daily was paticularly outspoken in its commentary, explaining that “hostile Western forces have intensified their strategy to westernize and split China, and employed every possible means to contain and control our country’s development”.

China’s three main complaints, then, are deepening anti-China alliances fostered by the US, Japan’s actions in defence of the Senkaku Islands, and US-led attempts to “westernize” China.  All three of these complaints are, of course, well-founded, as has been evidenced during the past week.

On the alliance structure, for instance, on 17 April Japan’s ambassador to Seoul called for a strengthening of the trilateral ties between Japan, South Korea, and the US, not just as a response to North Korean belligerence but also as a response to China. 

Ambassador Koro Bessho said: “While the South Korea-US alliance and the Japan-US alliance are solid, defence cooperation between South Korea and Japan is still vulnerable…Although it is a sensitive issue, I hope the two nations forge a close cooperation in the field of defence.”

If China’s definition of Japanese “troublemaking” on the Senkaku Islands includes continuing to oppose territorial infringements by Chinese vessels, then Japanese “troublemaking” was also on display this week. 

On 16 April, the day the white paper was released, three Chinese maritime surveillance vessels intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyou Islands for the 37th time since September. The intrusion lasted for nine hours.  The Japan Coast Guard reacted to the intrusion by requesting the Chinese ships by radio to leave, but they did not respond.

Then there is the accusation of attempts to “westernize” China.  This complaint relates to Western attempts to push China towards greater respect for human rights and to progress towards a more democratic society, and this was indeed something that US Secretary of State John Kerry made much of during his visit to Japan this week. 

In a speech in Tokyo on 15 April, Kerry emphasized that the US-Japan relationship had developed “into one of the strongest on earth” because it was “based on common values”.  ‘Common values’ has long been code for distinguishing between China and Asia’s US-aligned democracies, such as South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and India.  Kerry then went on to say:

“Finally, we must use our Pacific partnership to build a region whose people can enjoy the full benefits of democracy, the rule of law, universal human rights, including the freedom of expression, freedom of association, and peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, conscience and belief.  Human rights are quite simply the foundation for a free and an open society.  And history shows us that countries whose policies respect and reflect these rights are far more likely to be more peaceful and more prosperous, far more effective at tapping the talents of their people, far more capable of being innovative and moving rapidly and innovatively in the marketplace, and they are better long-term partners.”

This is exactly what Beijing is referring to when it complains about attempts to “westernize” China.  But we can see almost no circumstances in which any of this is going to change in the near future.  China has clearly set out on the path of establishing itself as the hegemonic power in East Asia and is ratcheting up, not playing down, its disputes with neighbours.  It is also matching this with continuing double-digit increases in military spending.

In response, China’s neighbours are deepening their alliances with the US and each other (helpfully assisted by the antics of China-aligned North Korea) and they are showing no signs of caving in to Chinese bullying over territorial disputes.  The US, meanwhile, continues its pivot towards Asia, invoking shared values with Asia’s democracies while highlighting the deficiencies of China in the field of human rights and democracy. 

A cycle of confrontation is developing in East Asia that can only be broken by a return to moderation by China and a recommitment to “peaceful rise” that its neighbours can believe in.  But there is no sign at all that this will happen under Xi’s new leadership; all the early indicators are pointing in the opposite direction.  JdeC.


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