The latest spat between the United States and China following the entry of an American destroyer into waters within 12 nautical miles of an island over which Beijing has claimed sovereignty is certain to draw international attention again to the rapid military build-up by the Chinese in the South China Sea.
China has dubbed the USS Mustin’s foray into waters near Mischief Reef as a “serious military provocation” and said it had to dispatch two frigates to “warn off” the American destroyer, which, according to a US official, was carrying out a “freedom of navigation” operation.
With the administration of US President Donald Trump already turning tough on China, there is every chance such operations will be stepped up to show Beijing that it cannot continue to extend its military reach into the South China Sea without a vigorous response from Washington.
Add to this the imminent deployment of British and French naval vessels to the South China Sea as a show of strategic intent to China, and the stage is set for another sharp increase in tension.
The move by Britain and France is purportedly to demonstrate European solidarity with the US and its staunch allies like Japan and Australia in standing up to a rising China that they believe wants to challenge the rules-based international order that has been in place since the end of the second world war.
But it will change nothing. There is little chance that Beijing will slow down, let alone stop, its massive effort to construct runways and other facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea for its fighter aircraft and warships. If anything, it will step up the pace. Why?
The answer that Washington would like to have the world believe is that Beijing wants primacy over the South China Sea and is set on acquiring the ability to project military power to enforce that claim.
Coming from a country which has stated openly, in its National Security Strategy, that it will not countenance the rise of any other power to challenge its global dominance and which has some 900 military bases and facilities around the world to back that up, that is, well, a bit rich. Which is the country that regards the Gulf of Mexico as its backyard and wants all others to back off?
Not surprisingly, the Chinese, from the other side of the looking glass, see the growing tension over the South China Sea quite differently – it is the US that is playing up the fortification of those islands as a prelude to Chinese intimidation of its neighbours, just so it can maintain or even increase its armed presence in waters not far from China’s 14,500km coastline.
Beijing is convinced that Washington is trying all ways to contain China’s emergence as an equal – increasing freedom of navigation patrols to challenge any Chinese move to deny the US Seventh Fleet area access, fostering closer defence cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with Japan, Australia and India and, in the latest turn of the screw, calling for an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative for massive infrastructure projects linking Europe and Asia.
Challenge the international rules-based order? Beijing is unlikely ever to let slip any hint of wanting to do that even if it is so minded. At the same time, however, it does not see the need to apologise for the prevailing view in China that its sovereignty should not be compromised by rules written by Western powers at a time when China and many other countries, for that matter, were too weak to stand up for their interests and rights.
The 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, which left open the ownership of Xisha (Paracel), and Nansha (Spratly) islands in the South China Sea, is one prime example. China, which has long claimed sovereignty over these islands, was not even invited to the deliberations led by the US and Britain under the auspices of the United Nations to formalise the return of what Japan plundered from the countries they conquered during the Pacific War.
This sowed the seeds of the present disputes among claimant countries. One cannot help but wonder whether ownership of these islands would still be an issue had the British and the Americans not shut the door on Communist China then because of the looming cold war.
For the record, China, in fact, does abide by rules laid down under international accords, whether on climate change or exploration in the Arctic and Antarctica, but just not those that it thinks will undermine its sovereignty or core interests. It is not alone in taking such an approach – the US, for instance, does not want to be bound by rulings handed down by the International Criminal Court.
Thus to conclude that China is bulking up militarily because it wants to be able to throw its weight around and force others into submission is a presumptive judgment. Washington, which practically invented the term “regime change”, should be the last to cast this stone.
There is no denying, of course, that China is growing in confidence and wants a larger voice and role on the international stage. Indeed, its leader Xi Jinping said as much recently, in a notable departure from the policy of keeping a low profile advocated by predecessor Deng Xiaoping and adhered to by Deng’s successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Xi has left no one in any doubt that China would want a place at the top table, but not at the pleasure of the Americans.
In sum, is China arming itself to the teeth because it wants, in a crunch (over Taiwan for example), to be able to say no to the US? Most probably. Or is China doing so in the expectation that cowering neighbours will always say yes? I don’t think so but we shall see.
Still, why is China so hell-bent on pushing ahead with the military build-up when it knows full well that this is certain to raise suspicions, even from those who bear no ill will towards the country?
The answer is that China does not want to feel vulnerable ever again. It believes in the adage that those who failed to learn the lessons of history are doomed to re-live them. And among the bitter lessons for China is this – sovereignty must be underpinned by strength.
Here are just a few random examples of what the Chinese paid in blood to learn in their 100 years of humiliation by Western and Japanese imperialists who colonised parts of China in all but name:
# During the First Opium War that ended in 1842, the British Navy had total control of the waters off the Chinese coast and could attack any Chinese port or city at will. For example, in August 1841, sailing from Hong Kong, it took only 53 days to move north and capture Xiamen, Zenghai, Ningbo and several other Chinese coastal cities. In contrast, the Chinese forces, relying on land defence, needed 40 days just to move troops and cannons from one province to the neighbouring one.
# On Sept 7, 1853, taking advantage of the confusion and lawlessness that followed an attack by a small army of rebels (the Society of Small Knives) against the Qing government in Shanghai, a group of British merchants and hired thugs raided the Chinese Customs Office in The Bund and looted all the goods which had been left there for duty assessment purposes. The Chinese officials on duty were powerless to stop them and fled for their lives.
On the next day, when Qing authorities tried to enter the building, they were blocked by British marines sent there ostensibly to protect the interests and trading rights of British and other foreign merchants under the unequal treaty forced on China after the First Opium War.
The Qing government ruling China then protested but to no avail. Britain and later the United States simply took over the collection of duty on goods on the pretext that the Qing officials had proven to be inept at the task and were, in any case, unable to provide safety and security. But instead of handing over revenue collected in cash, they “paid” the Chinese government in promissory notes, which, as it turned out, were not worth the paper they were printed on.
Worse, by the end of 1858, after losing the Second Opium War, China had to cede all custom duty collection to the British. This continued for close to 70 years.
WATCH: The South China Sea – what has happened so far
# On August 3, 1900, to protect foreigners living in Beijing who felt threatened by rioters calling themselves Righteous Boxers, an International Alliance of Eight Imperialist Powers dispatched just 18,811 men to invade the Chinese capital. Armed with weapons far superior to what the Qing army could muster, they took just 10 days to trounce more than 150,000 Qing defenders and several hundred thousand rioters, and conquer Beijing.
# On October 5, 1931, when Chinese residents in Shanghai started a boycott of Japanese goods in protest against Japan’s repeated incursions into China, Tokyo sent gunboats up the Yangtze River as a show of force.
Indeed allowing foreign naval patrols up the Yangtze was one of the humiliating concessions forced on China after the First Opium War. The Americans formed a Yangtze Patrol to do just that, often cruising more than 2,100km upstream as far as Chongqing. This squadron-sized unit was disbanded only in 1949.
Given all these, it is perhaps understandable for Beijing to say: Never again!
But are the Chinese stretching the argument a bit? Surely in this day and age, no American or British naval craft would want to sail up the Yangtze uninvited, and no Western government would presume to usurp any administrative function, whether tax collection or whatever else, in China or anywhere else in Asia.
Well, how do you think Beijing will look at the USS Mustin’s incursion? And submarines and ships of the US Seventh Fleet are known to have also sailed close to, though not into, China’s territorial waters in Bohai regularly, in preparation for the day when its carrier group is ordered to choke off all the trading routes bringing oil and other goods to China.
Far-fetched? It was no more than two months ago when Admiral Harry Harris Junior, former Commander of the US Pacific Command, said at the Senate hearing confirming his appointment as Ambassador to Australia that the US must prepare for war with China. No prize, thus, for guessing why the Chinese want those military bases and facilities in the South China Sea so badly.
Similarly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly assured Beijing that in the event of war with North Korea, while the US would trust only its own forces in the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, they would leave as soon as the job was done. In other words, while the Chinese are just around the corner and can get to the North Korean facilities quicker, the Americans are saying, no, only they can and should do the job.
Well, what do you think the Chinese, with their long memory, will make of that?
It cannot be lost on the Chinese that if they acquiesce to this, American troops will be within a day’s drive from their border, as they were during the Korean war.
With the bitter lessons from their recent history still very much in their mind, and reading all these moves by the US and its allies, is it any wonder they will hold on to their military facilities in the South China Sea, come hell or high water?