Amid all the news reports of people suffering and dying of coronavirus disease (COVID) across the world, Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea continues unabated. The US will, of course, not give the communist regime having a nostalgic fixation with the map of China during the era of the Qing Dynasty a walkover. The unprecedented global health emergency may, in the end, give way to an armed conflict between the navies or at least an escalation. This article aims at keeping the world, which is mourning its dead these days, alert to the dangerous Chinese military exercise, which the US cannot ignore.
As of now, neither side is escalating the face-off, but the Chinese man-made islands were a development few noticed even in normal times. China aims as turning the Yellow, South and East China Seas into an Asiatic Mediterranean of sorts where Chinese interests will rule the roost — to the chagrin of all ASEAN countries that share the waters. The US Indo-Pacific Command, in response, is working on consolidating its forward bases, telling the world that freedom of the seas and skies is non-negotiable and developing its maritime interests a few hundred miles from where the 12 nautical miles of Indian maritime territory in the eastern sector ends.
Even if the world does not care for the claim of the Philippines over island chains like the Spratlys or the Chinese eyeing the Paracels, it cannot ignore the fact that 70% of pre-COVID global trade happened on this route connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. That is because a bulk of European and American commerce of heavy goods happens right here.
Chinese lie did not bother Obama administration
While smaller nations have dared big powers by constructing military outposts or airstrips on the stretch of naturally occurring islands, China dredged up the seafloor and erected large man-made islands replete with anti-ship and anti-aircraft weaponry, airfields, radars, piers and barracks. In the decade that is gone, the total area the Chinese covered with this monstrosity was over 3,000 ac.
They lied to Barack Obama when he was the US president, telling him they would never militarise these man-made islands. When Chinese permanent president and CCP general secretary Xi Jinping reneged on the promise, the Democrat head of the United States kind of squeaked in the name of an objection. Chinese newspapers, whose journalists take dictation from Beijing, dared to warn the US of war. Simultaneously, Chinese ships and fighter aircraft heckled US forces.
In the East China Sea, Chinese fishing trawlers and patrol vessels maintained hegemonistic supremacy over Japan. They claimed the Japanese territory of Senkaku Islands. Last year, as China does with India along the land borders from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese vessels made more than 1,000 incursions into the Japanese waters near the Senkakus. This was an audacious increase of 80% from the Chinese incursions into Japanese waters in 2018.
Even Chinese private boats heckle tiny S-E Asian nations’ coast guards
Even in the midst of the global COVID pandemic, Chinese fighter jets have flown tantalisingly near the airspace of Taiwan. They crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait that separated the democratic territory of Chiang Kai Shek from that of the communist Mao Zedong historically.
China treated Vietnam as a pushover. A Chinese coast guard ship rammed a fishing vessel of Vietnam in a contested maritime area close to the Paracel Islands. Worse, China captured and detained the Vietnamese crew.
China also conducted joint exercises with ally Cambodia to intimidate Vietnam.
In the meantime, the CCP-dictated Chinese media boasted of the communist regime’s military presence in south-east Asia. State news agencies bragged about the Chinese aircraft carrier training exercises and an anti-submarine warfare drill. In the region, only Japan and India have these capabilities.
The military powers of most nations along the maritime route are so insignificant that China often does not need its navy to heckle its neighbours. Using fishing fleets to invade disputed waters and even sovereign waters has for a decade been part of a Chinese strategy in the region.
Even Chinese private boats with the backing of China’s maritime patrol vessels have ridden roughshod over the Philippines’ modest coast guards and navies in the Spratlys. These are not shoot-and-scoot exercises. A Chinese flotilla has stayed put in Philipino waters in the middle of the global COVID pandemic.
Beijing’s ultimate objective behind this exercise in harassment is turning the Scarborough Shoal, under Chinese control since 2012, into its next base. Once accomplished, the Philippines would feel perennially threatened while China would gain a strategic vantage point in the eastern South China Sea.
Trump inherits uncomfortable legacy
The Obama administration was too coy to challenge Beijing in the ‘Asiatic Mediterranean’. Piecemeal statements from the US where military manoeuvre was warranted gave the Chinese an impression Washington DC had a supine government. Obama did not even give the US Navy the green signal to ensure the ‘freedom of navigation’ operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea.
China took full advantage of a sissy administration in the US, establishing its virtual arbitration in the South China Sea when Donald Trump took over the disadvantageous position in the region. He pledged to end the Chinese dominion in Asia-Pacific. When the world media was busy reporting the Sino-American trade war, the Us Navy executed FONOPs near territories claimed by China. Not once but monthly.
Sirf News had reported the US Navy’s FONOP through the Taiwan Strait in January. It happened again last month. Now the communist regime of China claims it is only taking countermeasures in the region.
Dear apologists of China, communist and capitalist goals aren’t the same
Now, if apologists of China pounce on the American military example to assert their communist masters did nothing wrong, they must be told the US does not lay its claims on the territory. All that Washington DC is doing is ensuring that the route stays free for international trade. Even when the US and Japan were hardly friends, American diplomats said to the representatives of both the Qing Dynasty and the Tokugawa shoguns that all that the US wanted was a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Beijing has but no qualms about admitting that its objective is military. It says the area in and around the South China Sea entirely belongs to it on account of the territories of the Qing Dynasty! That is like India saying — which it never did — that the entire stretch between West Asia and Cambodia must be considered present-day India too based on the description of the Indian tribes in the Mahabharata!
In the case that China does not take its own historical claim seriously, the CCP orders constructing islands in the South China Sea at least to gain Chinese control over crucial sea lanes of the economy, commerce and communication in a manner that the world would need to bow before it to be permitted the rite of passage!
In contrast, when the US makes demands of countries even around the Indian Ocean, it centres around rhetorical advocacy of democracy and human rights rather than efforts to establish military bases or get concessions for American maritime commerce.
Circling India by owning coastal Asia, Africa
Through the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which India thankfully refused to join, China is establishing a ‘maritime Silk Road’. If OBOR meets its potential fully, it will be a replica of sorts of the ancient trading route through the Indian Ocean and southern Asian maritime region, which China used to dominate despite a longer land stretch of India in the area in historical times.
Recently, a Chinese state-run company bought the management of the Sri Lankan Hambantota port when Colombo was unable to repay Chinese loans. In this Shylock-style, China will gradually take over ports of Kenya and Tanzania, Djibouti, Oman, Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, thus linking the eastern coast of Africa and the southern coast of Asia to the South China Sea that it anyway claims it wholly owns.
So brazen is China in its expansionist spree that it has built its base in Djibouti near facilities of the US Navy. The Chinese interests in this maritime region connect to the Chinese telecommunication network in Africa. This is, ergo, military-cum-economic dominance over half of the world.
As the World Health Organisation (WHO) furthers the CCP propaganda on global COVID pandemic, the US is at best playing catch-up with the help of allies and partners like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. The largely leftist Indian media and too circumspect by half Indian government isn’t helping the cause. Senator Cory Gardner’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act in 2018 did not even make news in this part of Asia when India discussed the dangers posed by the Chinese OBOR.
Clearly a nation hostile to India, China enjoys as of now an unassailable grip of the state of affairs in the region while India neither reclaims its historical glory nor ever becomes part of a US-led axis with Japan (and possibly Taiwan and all ASEAN nations) against the Chinese string of pearls.
The writer, who has contributed this article on the condition of anonymity, works with the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India