Beijing draws onnew weapons in sea dispute

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am


Much attention has been focused on China's military strength in its tussle with the Philippines over disputed territory in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Clearly the PLA Navy's growing reach, demonstrated by anti-piracy patrols and increased excursions into regional waters, is a major reason the decades-old conflict is attracting so much international attention lately.

But it has also shown that China, as the world's second-largest economy, now has more than military might to bring to bear. It has the diplomatic strength to bend discussions to its will and the economic power to implement trade restrictions that sting - like calling back tourists or the slowdown Manila claims it has put on imports of Philippine fruit.

China also has a modern state-run industrial system capable of churning out the two huge exploration vessels that sailed into an undisputed section of the South China Sea this month. Ocean Oil 981, the country's first domestically made semisubmersible deep-sea drilling platform, drilled successfully 320 kilometres southeast of Hong Kong on May 9. Offshore Oil 201, the world's first deep-water pipe-laying barge, sailed from Qingdao on May 15 to begin testing, not far from Beijing and Manila's overlapping claims.

The diversified approach - diplomatic, economic and technological - has been praised by analysts as an effective strategy for China to assert its claims to the region without resorting to military conflict.

'China was weak in the past, but now we are strong,' said Xu Guangyu , a senior researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing. 'We should go as far as possible into the South China Sea to start exploration and drilling as it is also a method to declare our sovereignty.'

Having the exploration vessels just outside disputed waters would make it that much easier to reach the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island, when the time comes - something hardliners are already urging Beijing to do.

The multifaceted strategy also serves to protect Beijing's vital diplomatic and economic relationship with the United States, the world's leading military power and an ally of several countries in the region.

Professor Shi Yinhong, an expert in Sino-US relations at Renmin University, said Beijing has learned over 30 years of ups and downs that a good relationship with Washington means keeping disputes with its neighbours under control. 'If China settles down relations with its neighbours, the US will be forced to admit China's two-tiered status as a global power in Asia and a strong strategic partner of the US,' Shi said.

This is tied to China's broader ambition to become a major player on the world diplomatic stage. It cannot 'punish the Philippines' by military force without losing respect internationally. 'It's nothing to defeat the Philippines,' Shi said. 'What we have tried to do for so many years is make the US treat us not just as a global financial and trading power, but as a strategic and diplomatic power.'

Leaders on both sides of the Scarborough Shoal divide are under pressure at home to take a more aggressive approach. Philippine Foreign Secretary Cesar Purisima told the country to prepare for sacrifices if the month-long dispute continues, while Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo warned it would not tolerate 'bullying' by smaller countries. Retired major general Peng Guangqian even urged sending troops to guard the disputed shoal in an interview with the Global Times.

Experts, however, warn such actions could escalate into a regional conflict that could jeopardise the economy domestically and abroad. The US could even be drawn into direct conflict with China.

'It would be too easy to defeat rivals like the Philippines and Vietnam,' said Senior Colonel Li Jie of the PLA Navy's Military Academy. 'But that would only give the United States another reason to sell arms to our Asian counterparts - or even get involved in our disputes.'

Additional reporting by Raymond Li