China takes the gloves off
July 25th, 2012
01:57 PM ET

China takes the gloves off

By Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt is the Beijing-based China and Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. The views expressed are her own.

As tensions rise in the South China Sea, the gloves are coming off in Beijing. When it comes to exploiting the weaknesses of its rivals in Southeast Asia – smaller nations also laying claim to the South China Sea – China doesn’t pull any punches.

Until recently, it followed a line of “reactive assertiveness” – responding forcefully to perceived provocations in this disputed body of water. Now, there are signs that China has shed the “reactive” part of its approach.

Beijing took reactive assertiveness for a test drive during the Scarborough Shoal standoff with the Philippines that began in April. While faulting the Philippines for turning a typical fishing run-in into a crisis by sending in a warship, China took the opportunity to defend its claim over the disputed shoal by deploying non-military law enforcement vessels and allowing them to linger in the area. Beijing also didn’t hesitate to wield its clout over Manila’s perennially struggling economy, tightening regulations on imports of tropical fruit that resulted in an estimated $34 million in losses for the Philippines.
Beijing used reactive assertiveness again in response to a maritime law Vietnam passed last month that introduced new navigation regulations covering the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands. Before the ink on the law could dry, China announced the establishment of Sansha City, a sprawling administrative entity which incorporates some of the territory disputed by Vietnam and the Philippines. Earlier this week, Beijing authorized the Guangzhou Military Command of the People’s Liberation Army to form a garrison in the newly created city.

Also part of this more forceful approach was Beijing’s decision in late June to allow one of its state-run oil firms, the China National Offshore Oil Company, to invite foreign energy companies to bid for joint exploration in parts of the South China Sea that fall in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. These moves not only signal that Beijing won’t back down in the dispute, but they also show that Beijing will continue to reassert control over its once uncoordinated South China Sea policy. Coordination began to improve in mid-2011 when Beijing started to place greater emphasis on diplomacy in the sea. Previously, China’s assertiveness in the area had been an outgrowth of discordance and a lack of restraint among its legion of self-interested military, maritime, corporate and local government actors.

As China increasingly outdoes the Philippines and Vietnam in this dangerous game of tit-for-tat, one would expect ASEAN states to stand behind its members. But quite the opposite has been true. At the foreign ministers’ meeting held earlier this month in Phnom Penh, China pounced upon divisions already debilitating the organization. It used its sway over Cambodia, the organization’s chair, to prevent meaningful discussion on the South China Sea dispute, which made even a standard joint communiqué impossible for the first time in 45 years.

As the meeting in Phnom Penh fell apart, reports surfaced that a Chinese navy frigate had run aground near Half-Moon Shoal, a mere 110 kilometers from the Philippine island of Palawan. While an embarrassing blow to the Chinese military, the Ministry of Defense stated that the vessel was simply conducting routine naval patrols, albeit in an area squarely within the Philippines’ EEZ. This frigate was likely part of the patrols, described by a defense ministry spokesperson as “combat ready,” that Beijing started late last month in the South China Sea in response to Vietnamese air patrols over the Spratlys.

Sending military vessels to make rounds in disputed waters may well be an indication that China has shifted from using law enforcement vessels to respond to recent incidents like Scarborough. This is particularly troubling as a dispute involving an armed military vessel would undeniably be much more difficult for China to walk back.

China’s more brazen approach can be explained in part by the fact that it wasn’t satisfied by the gains from its tactical shift in 2011 to greater diplomacy, followed by reactive assertiveness. Domestic politics also contribute to China’s hardening stance on the South China Sea. Previously, as the Chinese public was left bewildered by the Bo Xilai scandal, the Scarborough Shoal incident offered a convenient distraction. Now, China is once again flexing its muscles in the sea, partly to dispel fears of fragility stemming from its fast approaching change in leadership.

Yet China’s leaders should be careful of what they wish for. A tough approach could easily backfire. It could give Washington’s Asian pivot an added boost by pushing Vietnam and the Philippines further into the arms of the United States. Moreover, as territorial disputes strike at the heart of nationalist sentiments, a riled public could pressure the government to up the diplomatic ante. The Chinese government could find itself trapped in a position where it’s forced to act aggressively, even if just for show. Being cornered, without a way to sidestep military confrontation, is the last thing Beijing wants.

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Topics: China

soundoff (183 Responses)
  1. Goliath's Widow

    I see it differently. With China surrounded on all sides with no real friend to help him, I think China is the David and the free world is the Goliath, with a different twist of course, chinese david will be crushed.

    July 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • supermario

      Judging from your user name, the free world is dead.

      July 27, 2012 at 8:29 am |
  2. Me,myself and I

    What we have here is nothing more than another Nazi regime. I see people talking about how many were killed in Vietnam, bullets this or bullets that. The point that all countries have committed crimes against humanity. If one was judge current events based on history. What we have here is another cold war. The difference is will America vs China. Like I have said before. China is nothing more a big steaming pile of dung. I say, America should pull it's companies out of China as well as all other countries. We as a one world society are enpowering China and have feed the sleeping bully for too long. While I don't hate Chinese per say, I do hate China and moronic goverment.

    Obviously we expect the world goverments to curtail China's power. The truth is stopping buying or using stuff made in China. We the people of the world can start like this...I personally don't use or have anything that is Chinese. Made in or otherwise. Even if, for example, a product is made in America but has a diode made in China. It won't be used by me or anyone in my household.

    July 27, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • supermario

      I need my Nintendo wsherever it is made, the cheaper the better. I can buy more games. If the Philippines can make it cheaper than China, I'll buy it from you.

      July 27, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • mike

      Do you even know what the actual definition of "nazi" is? I can't believe the words being toss around without real functioning understanding of what they mean!

      July 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  3. Necessary Leak

    Squabbles in the secret Philippines Weapons Research and Development Program is not helping the country with its current situation. The President should intervene immediately about the growing conflict between civilian scientists and engineers (dominated by UP and Ateneo) against the military engineers and PhD's. Reports said that the military engineers and scientists cannot swallow their pride considering that the civilian scientists made more contributions, especially with the naval weapons systems. One fiasco resulting from this is the production of fast crafts without its intended weapons systems such as the fast torpedoes. Another problem causing the delay is the inability to test these weapons because of the fear that the U.S. might find out about it. Well, so what if they will find out about it. Why don't we just pay royalties for some of the technologies we copied. Lets bring it to the open folks, we have no more choice. We believe that team leaders for these program should be chosen based on their know-how and not based on military ranks so that civilian experts can contribute in a more meaningful and efficient manner. The low cost missiles is suppose to be completed last year. Now our President will have to find alibis to postpone military confrontation with China because of military brass inefficiency. Leave it to the civilains

    July 27, 2012 at 1:02 am |
  4. Samuel Brinckerhoff PhD

    "Experimental Democracy" has failed in India. An experiment that was being shoved down India's throat by western countries too eager to propagate their own values on a country that was trying to decolonize itself while trying to shed the communist skin of being a Soviet ally. India was thus trapped. What has become evident now is that this "Experimental Democracy" has marginalized the country. The marginalized groups of the country – Dalits and ‘backward’ castes/classes, indigenous ‘tribal’ people and religious minorities have been disenfranchised. "The belief that corruption is the important issue in the country is shared only by the minority living in urban areas and towns who have been beneficiaries of economic liberalization policies mandated by western countries. The most important challenges of Indian society remain as follows: justice, social and economic equality and equal access to certain standards of life for all Indians. “While India seems too eager to please its western masters and put on a progressive and softer face for CNN for public consumption, people see through it. The consequences of this "Band – Aid" approach will be brutal for India geo-politically when it realizes that the GDP statistics that it has been relying to gage its progress has not amounted to much in the long run.

    July 27, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Anthony1223

      Democracy is good but Social-democracy is better.Democracy without law and order is a disaster. Democracy with too many greedy selfish politicians is also a disaster.Every country more or less facing the unemployment problem and find no way to solve them.So “external hard-line internal position” is what politicians use to do during election year.

      July 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • Anthony1223

      Even Coca Cola has to modify the taste to suit different country,DEMOCRACY one type cannot suit all.

      July 29, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  5. Subic Watch

    Mr. "Necessary Leak" (whoever you are), you got your facts wrong. Let me spell it out for you: the U.S. knows about these weapons programsbut they make it appear that these weapons are made by Filipinos so that they will not be blamed when some Filipino or Vietnamese missiles start blowing up Chinese ships sky high. Filipino engineers only added non-vital designs but the important technologies are intentionally leaked by U.S. intelligence. Of course these technologies are obsolete based on U.S. standards but are enough to create a CREDIBLE FORCE to counter Chinese aggression. Every time a U.S. navy submarine or ship docks in the Philippines, Filipino looking operatives deliver the technologies straight to the research facilities. There are many security levels in those facilities. Those with lower level security clearance never suspected that Filipino looking American weapons engineers ferried from Guam and back are not Filipinos. Those weapons you are talking about are ready to fire. You were just made to believe that these are still incomplete. U.S. play this tactic so that they will not be blamed for any live fire confrontation to protect their core interests in China. And I believe the naive Chinese will buy this one.

    July 27, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • mike

      "Of course these technologies are obsolete based on U.S. standards but are enough to create a CREDIBLE FORCE to counter Chinese aggression."...

      You must be kidding me! When was the last time "high tech" and Filipinos or Vietnamese appeared in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence? China' military may be behind the US, but it easily stands its ground against these two fifth rate powers. The only good thing these two can make are sandals and pho soups. I am trying to imagine a bunch of chubby-belly filipino cop/spies in flip flops trying to steal high tech know-how from viisting US ships.....can't help but LMAO!

      July 27, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
      • Big Belly

        You will find out soon mike of the china blog brigade. Enjoy the coming fireworks

        July 27, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  6. Terry

    Okay, I think this chinese mike needs some enlightenment. Here's one.. Balikan exercises of the Philippines and U.S. forces consist of two groups: One group together with some ships and landing crafts play the cover story of landing and ground combat exercises, the other group away from the shores test missiles and torpedoes. They don't need to test the weapons if they are made in the U.S., will they?

    July 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  7. Anthony1223

    I think it would be a terrible mistake for the US to get into any kind of containment or confrontation with China when China is our largest trading partner, our largest foreign creditor and where we have far more areas of common interest than we have areas of conflict.
    There was a recent conference in Norfolk Virginia that was a direct quote by the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cartwright and by the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey and they both emphasized that their intention is to build up improved military to military cooperation with China and also with Russia

    July 29, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  8. Anthony1223

    DC mayor: Chinese investors welcomed
    The mayor of Washington DC, Vincent Gray, has described China as the best place in the world for international investors to go to find opportunities, and has firmly opened the doors of his city to Chinese companies looking to launch or expand their presence in the United States.
    "What is the best place to go to in terms of opportunities? It's China," he said, categorically.
    In 2011, his district received about 123,000 visitors from China.
    "We wanted to expand our relationship with China, strengthen ties with leaders of the government and businesses, and determine what opportunities are available for us," he said.
    Gray said economic development is a good way to strengthen the US-China relationship."When people start working together, they will learn from each other and will do good things."
    Instead of buying outdated weapons,use it in where Philippine people need most.Set aside the difference and emphasize more on economic cooperation will be good for all especially for Philippine.
    As President Eisenhower pointed out in 1953, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron

    July 29, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  9. Harry

    I think China is amazing country. Their leaders have lift over 300 million out of poverty without war and conquest and raping other people resources like the West. If only the rest of the developing world can accomplish what china has.

    August 12, 2012 at 3:25 am |
  10. TheWordpressGhost

    Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:
    China began military operations in other countries. In the past, they have 'responded' with military operations. Now, they are conducting 'routine' patrols.

    Yes, they dispute the territorial claims, but only because they want the oil and fish ....


    August 16, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  11. grace

    Absolutely agree. I don't think it is right to claim Spratly islands when it is obvioulsy closer to Vietnam and Philippines. Using intimidation in these weaker countries makes it even worse.

    Nazi China must be stopped!

    August 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  12. migkc

    your guys know not thing Iam a chinesse but Iam not standing for china
    Look china nerver do notthing good for any country only money...

    October 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  13. zortilo nrel

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    January 1, 2021 at 9:35 pm |
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