China geopolitical interests in eastern Asia and south china sea

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was proclaimed by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This followed two decades of almost constant turmoil that took the form of a prolonged civil war between the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as well as the Japanese invasion of China, which resulted in the eight year Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). Following Chiang Kai-shek’s split with the CCP after his massacre of thousands of Communists in Shanghai in March 1927, the Nationalists were soon faced with a series of armed insurrections led by the Communists in cities such as Nanchang and Guangzhou. These uprisings ultimately proved unsuccessful. The Communists were driven into the countryside, where the Nationalists proceeded to wage a total of five campaigns of “extermination” between 1930 and 1934, aimed at achieving a comprehensive victory. The success of the fifth campaign in encircling and strangling the Communists led the latter to abandon their base in Jiangxi Province in October 1934 and stage the famous “Long March,” a 4,000-mile journey to establish a new base in Shaanxi in northwest China. China would soon be faced by the even greater threat of external invasion. The Japanese had established a presence in Manchuria by 1931. Growing domestic expansionist pressures led to an undeclared war with China following the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” on July 7, 1937. Following the outbreak of hostilities, the Communists and Nationalists formed a “United Front” with the goal of defeating the Japanese, although the conflict between the CCP and the KMT was never resolved. Despite its initial success in taking many of the key coastal cities, including Shanghai, and eventually the Nationalist capital of Nanjing, the Japanese advance soon stalled. The Japanese army was never able to penetrate deep into the Chinese countryside. The Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945, following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, plunged China back into civil war. The Communists soon gained the upper hand, eventually driving the KMT out of China and into Taiwan, paving the way for the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

Mao inherited a country that was exhausted from almost two decades of constant internal and external warfare. Fairbank and Goldan explain that “the first eight years of the People’s Republic were a creative period of reconstruction, growth and invention.” This was later extended, with disastrous consequences, into an attempt by Mao to fast-track China’s modernization process and transform the country from a primarily agrarian to an industrialized nation. The “Great Leap Forward” (1958–60) resulted in the “worst humanitarian disaster ever to befall China” in the form of a massive famine that claimed the lives of at least 20 million people. In 1966, China was plunged again into internal turmoil as a result of a sustained political campaign, known as the “Cultural Revolution” (1966–76), aimed at purifying Chinese society. The roots of the Cultural Revolution lay, however, in a power struggle between Mao and Liu Shaoqi, Chairman of the PRC (1959–68) and perceived as a challenger to Mao’s power. The result was that for a decade the Chinese political system was “first thrown into chaos and then paralyzed.” China emerged from the Cultural Revolution only after Mao’s death in September 1976.

Following the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping, once he had consolidated his position as the new leader, realized that China had to embark on a program of rapid economic growth to make up for lost time. He concentrated on the introduction of capitalist elements in what he termed “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” epitomized by his famous declaration that to “get rich is glorious.” Under Deng, China embarked on a program of modernization and the opening of the country to the wider world that resulted in almost two decades of sustained double-digit economic growth. China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) more than quadrupled between 1978 and 1999.

China is unique among all the states discussed in this chapter. The sheer geographic mass and centrality of the country makes it a dominant player in the international politics of the East Asian region. In Robyn Lim’s view, China “represents the chief challenge to the balance of power in East Asia because it possesses the motive, will and opportunity to seek dominance there.” China is the only nation in Asia officially recognized as being in possession of nuclear weapons and the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). References to “the rise of China” have become pervasive in current political rhetoric. Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore and current Minister Mentor in the Singapore Cabinet, has even declared that China is “the biggest player in the history of man.” Yet, the country has also been characterized as the “most self-aware rising power in history.” This can be seen, for instance, in its fixation with the concept of “Comprehensive National Power” that revolves around indexing China’s economic, military, and political power against its competitors. Still, the PRC is acutely aware of the increasing propagation of the “China threat” image associated with its rising power and influence. In response, Beijing has sought to reassure other nations that its growing power, far from being a threat, is fundamentally peaceful.

Northeast Asian security is greatly influenced by China and its relations with Japan. The two states have had a tumultuous and war-torn history, each remaining suspicious about the intentions of the other. This is in part due to the legacy of the Second World War and Japan’s alliance with the United States. Despite increased economic ties, bilateral relations have been deeply affected by growing nationalist sentiments in China and Japan. The latter remains an easy target for the projection of Chinese dissatisfaction by politicians and citizens alike. Hatred for Japan is seen as a legitimate component of Chinese ideology and identity. Peter Gries writes that “many Chinese today see the 1895 loss to Japan and the ensuing Treaty of Shimonoseki as the darkest hour in the ‘Century of Humiliation.’” More importantly, China believes that Japan has not expressed adequate regret for the crimes it has committed over the course of its history. Bitter resentment over the Sino-Japanese War, the 1930s invasion of China and the Nanjing massacre continues to resonate in the Chinese cultural memory. The massacre began on December 13, 1937, following the Japanese occupation of the eastern Chinese city, and tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of civilians and non-combatants were killed. In China’s view, Japan’s failure to compromise on the question of territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diao yu Islands is therefore viewed largely as a lack of remorse for its violent past.

Nevertheless, while Tokyo and Beijing are still at odds over disputed borders in the East China Sea, their wartime history, and China’s rapidly growing economic and military power, Sino-Japanese relations have improved since late 2006. This started with the “ice-breaking” visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in early October 2006, shortly after he took office. President Hu Jintao declared at the time that Abe’s visit would “serv[e] as a turning point in China–Japan relations” and “as a new starting point for the improvement and development of bilateral ties.” Abe’s visit was reciprocated with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s successful “icethawing” visit to Japan in April 2007. The visit was seen by some analysts as a positive indicator that China is willing to moderate its stance and focus on the future. This was followed in November 2007 by the visit of the Chinese guidedmissile destroyer Shenzhen to the port of Tokyo and the Japanese naval headquarters in Yokosuka. This constituted the first visit of a Chinese warship to Japan since the 1930s and thus symbolized improving ties between the two nations. The ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the Nanjing massacre was also devoid of inflammatory rhetoric over Japan’s wartime record. Instead, it included a series of symbolic peace gestures.

All this came about after a period of frosty relations during Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s premiership. Described as a “lost half decade” in Sino-Japanese relations, this period was fueled by Koizumi’s banning of Chinese protests during his yearly visits, from 2001 to 2006, to the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors Japan’s war dead, and among those enshrined there fourteen Class-A war criminals from the Second World War. Designed to preserve the support of the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the Prime Minister’s repeated visits to the shrine angered Beijing. The lowest point in the bilateral ties was reached in the first half of 2005 as a result of the publication of a controversial history textbook in Japan and growing popular opposition in China to Tokyo’s efforts at securing a permanent seat on the UNSC. These developments sparked popular protests in China, including a demonstration outside the Japanese Consulate General in Shanghai in April 2005.

However, by the time Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda took over from Shinzo Abe in September 2007 the situation had already improved markedly, and his visit to China three months later cemented this. Chinese President Hu Jintao made a five-day return visit in May 2008, the first by a Chinese President in almost a decade.
The earlier visit, by Jiang Zemin, during which a written apology had been demanded from Japan for its invasion of China, had chilled bilateral ties. In contrast, Hu’s visit in 2008 marked the anniversary of the signing of the 1978 China–Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Calling for a new era in bilateral relations, Hu and Fukuda agreed in a joint statement issued on May 7, 2008 to cooperate and enhance mutual trust, to hold annual summits and to look towards the future. In addition to leaving historical issues off the agenda, the two leaders announced that a solution was in sight on the joint exploration of natural resources in the East China Sea. An agreement on joint development was concluded a month later, ending a protracted four-year negotiation process, with Fukuda declaring that the deal “presages a sea of peace and cooperation.” Besides high-level visits, there has also been an increase in cultural exchanges between the two countries, with 2007 declared as the “exchange year of culture and sports” and 2008 as the “exchange year of youth.” Symbolically, following the massive earthquake in the Chinese province of Sichuan in May 2008, a Japanese rescue team was the first international humanitarian assistance to be welcomed by Beijing. In June 2008, a Japanese destroyer, the Sazanami, docked at the southern Chinese port of Zhanjiang, becoming the first Japanese warship to sail to a Chinese port since the Second World War. It should be stressed, however, that mutual popular antipathy remains strong in both China and Japan.
Let us now turn to China’s relations with Southeast Asian states. The PRC was often described in Southeast Asia as a threat in the 1990s. The territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands was, and to a lesser extent continues to be, the most prominent problem afflicting China and the four Southeast Asian claimant states (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei). The Chinese government’s passage of the Law on Territorial Waters and Contiguous Areas in 1992 caused tremendous concern in the sub-region at the time. The law reiterated China’s claims in the sea and stipulated the right to use force, including in the Spratlys, and their surrounding waters. Though only reiterating the traditional Chinese claims in the South China Sea, the law questioned the peaceful management of the territorial dispute. Part of the defense modernization undertaken by Southeast Asian states was a consequence of this issue.
The concern was exacerbated in February 1995 when China encroached on Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, which was also claimed by the Philippines. Manila reacted by substantially expanding its defense budget in order to acquire warships and aircraft in the event that it needed to defend its claims in the Spratlys. China also had military skirmishes with the Filipino navy in the waters of the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal, further raising the apprehensions of Vietnam and Malaysia as well. Jakarta was also concerned by China’s overarching claim to much of the South China Sea, which seemed to overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and include part of the Natuna Islands. Indonesia had been a neutral party in the South China Sea issue. This changed at the 1993 Workshop on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea, where Chinese officials released a map of the Chinese claims that included the waters above the Natuna gas fields exploited by Indonesia. During his visit to the PRC in July 1995, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Ali Alatas, was provided with no clarification regarding the Chinese claims to the Natuna Islands.

The China threat perception has gradually changed among Southeast Asian policy elites, however. Efforts by China to improve its image among the Southeast Asian nations have resulted in the perception of a more engaged and status quo power. Indications of an apparent willingness to cooperate have been evident in increased economic integration and overt signs of commitment to the sub-region. The East Asian financial crisis of 1997–8 allowed China to “demonstrate its political and economic value as a partner, even a regional leader.” In comparison to the response of the United States and Japan, the assistance provided by Beijing was largely described as helpful. Overall, China has added diplomatic activism to its growing economic and military growth. Shambaugh notes that at both the bilateral and multilateral levels, “Beijing’s diplomacy has been remarkably adept and nuanced, earning praise around the region.” China’s “charm offensive” toward ASEAN contrasts with its previous suspicion of multilateralism.

It is still to be seen, none the less, whether China will continue to be an accommodating rising power vis-à-vis the Southeast Asian states. One incident is worth noting in this respect. In July 2004, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Taiwan as a private citizen. Breaking with all earlier practice, the PRC formally protested and threatened massive economic sanctions. While he initially resisted, Lee relented when China canceled a major Singaporean trade show in Shanghai. He stated that “if a war breaks out across the straits, we will be forced to choose between the two sides . . . But if the conflict is provoked by Taiwan, then Singapore cannot support Taiwan.” Although his father and predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew, had visited Taiwan several times during his tenure as Singapore’s prime minister, such a reaction from China was unprecedented. The reason seemed to be that China now believes it no longer needs to put up with unwelcome actions taken by its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Despite the changing perception of a rising China, the fear that the country may pose an economic threat has increased in Southeast Asia. The Chinese economy is “projected to be among the world’s fastest growing.” Although economic integration has deepened between the PRC and ASEAN with the signing of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the Southeast Asian nations remain suspicious that jobs and investment will be lost to China. Concerns over economic supremacy have thus surpassed the previously dominant political and military threats posed by the country. In contrast to Southeast Asia, the situation has remained somewhat different for Japan as “China is dwarfed by Japanese economic power and investment by Japanese firms in mainland China is becoming more rapid.” Still, Japan is increasingly recognizing China’s emergence as a viable competitor. Ba explains that “as China’s economic influence grows, so too do concerns about China’s economic and political dominance.”

Contributing to the potential tension is the fact that China’s economic growth is dependent on maintaining a secure energy supply. The political and economic future of the country is directly linked to its ability to meet consumer demand and the industrial requirements of an expanding modern economy. Coal remains the chief source of energy to the country, supplying 60–70 percent of energy needs. Yet, the observable environmental impact of the resource is a cause for concern. Due to its coal usage, China is second only to the US in production of greenhouse gases. Efforts to offset the reliance on domestic supplies of coal include rising reliance on oil reserves. China’s energy situation has, as a result, become a growing worry to the entire world. In 1990, China was able to export $2.8 billion worth of oil to Japan. By 1993, the Chinese were themselves oil importers. By 2008, the PRC had to import half of its needs. This situation is expected to worsen in the future, as energy needs are projected to double from their 2000 levels by 2020. China is currently the second-largest oil importer in the world and the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that it will overtake the United States as the largest energy consumer after 2010. As Klare notes:
Recognizing that China’s onshore fields will not be able to yield significantly increased supplies of petroleum, and reluctant to become heavily dependent on foreign sources of energy, Beijing has begun to emphasize the development of offshore sources. This, in turn, has led to growing Chinese interest in the energy potential of the East and South China Seas.

Consequently, Chinese territorial claims may be attributable to its belief in the existence of natural resource reserves in the East and South China seas as well as a play for greater power within the region. Assertions of authority have been matched by the “continuing buildup of Chinese naval, amphibious, and air-attack capabilities.” Military spending by the state increased by 30 percent between 1985 and 1997, in large part due to the focus on bolstering “offshore active defense” capabilities. As Lim writes, “Chinese arms purchases from Russia amount to some one billion dollars annually.” These acquisitions add to the country’s ability to exert leverage over Taiwan and reinforce its territorial claims in the region. In short, ongoing territorial conflicts, naval modernization, economic growth, and increasing demands for energy in China have not eradicated all sources of tension between the state and its neighbors, despite the effort undertaken by the country to change its image within East Asia.

Besides its immediate neighbors, relations with the United States have remained critical for China. Despite its geographic distance, the superpower remains central to the East Asian security architecture. Washington can either mitigate or heighten existing tensions due to its very presence and network of security cooperation in the region. The US is likely to remain the economic and military hegemon in Asia for years to come, although its exercise of power will be complicated by the rise of China. Related to this issue are the close relations linking the US to its regional allies and whether such ties are perceived in Beijing as an attempt to constrain China’s rising power. In the view of Aaron Friedberg, “whether for good or ill, the most significant bilateral international relationship over the course of the next several decades is likely to be that between the United States and the PRC.” Over the last fifteen years, Sino-US relations have been affected by a series of incidents. The two countries engaged in an economic standoff in June 1994. US President Bill Clinton endorsed Congress’s stance that the renewal of China’s most favored nation trading status be conditional on several factors, including China’s human rights record. Yet, partly due to mounting pressure from the American business community, Clinton eventually gave way. China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Straits in March 1996 led Washington to deploy two carrier squadrons to deter further Chinese undertakings and actions of intimidation. Sino-US relations improved following the official trip of the Chinese President Jiang Zemin to the United States in November 1997 and the return visit of Clinton to China in June 1998 However, bilateral relations again deteriorated as a result of the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in early 1999, which was regarded in Beijing as part of a new US policy of containment.

The coming to power of President George W. Bush in January 2001 led to a resurgence of unilateralism in American foreign policy. In East Asia, the Bush administration repeatedly indicated its preference for flexibility and mobility over formal and institutionalized arrangements. More importantly, during his election campaign Bush had strongly criticized Clinton’s engagement policy with China, stating that he viewed the country as a “strategic competitor” rather than a “strategic partner.” Sino-US relations were also repeatedly tested during the first few months of the Bush administration, with high-profile visits by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian and the Dalai Lama to the United States angering the Chinese. Then, in April 2001, a US EP-3 spy plane collided with Chinese fighters, resulting in one of the Chinese planes being lost in the South China Sea.

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the resulting change in American foreign policy priorities to some extent have contributed to a more cooperative and constructive relationship. This has been due in part to Beijing’s strong support for US efforts to combat terrorism and China’s own anti-terrorism initiatives. As Washington began to focus on the dangers of terrorism and proliferation, the United States seemed “less inclined to view China as an actual or potential strategic competitor and more hopeful that, in a post-September 11 world, great powers would be united by common dangers.” Jia Qingguo feels that the change in American foreign policy priorities was “the single most important factor responsible for the improvement of the relations between China and the US after 9/11,” particularly as “the priority change provided more room for China to assume a more cooperative posture in managing relations with the US.” This warming of relations was visible when Bush personally hosted Jiang Zemin at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in October 2002.

However, as Bush began his second term in early 2005, there were signs of growing tension between China and the United States. These resulted from the stalled six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear issue; alarm generated over China’s military buildup; and continuing disputes over growing trade imbalance and currency values. Bush’s visit to China in November 2005 as part of his “Asian tour,” which also included visits to Japan and South Korea, among other countries, allowed constructive dialogue on a number of key issues, notably currency devaluation, intellectual property, and North Korea. Yet, Beijing took a firm stance on many other issues, especially Taiwan. Hu’s return visit to the United States was marred by a number of diplomatic and protocol gaffes, including Hu being heckled by a Falung Gong activist for over three minutes in the midst of his speech on the South Lawn of the White House. There was general agreement that the visit failed to break any new ground, with the International Herald Tribune defining the visit as “insignificant.” Ultimately, Friedberg reminds us that “the future character of the US–China relationship is also profoundly uncertain.” A number of deadlocked bilateral issues continue to be the underlying determinants of the relationship, among them the issues of human rights, trade imbalance, and currency valuation, as well as geostrategic considerations, such as Taiwan and North Korea. At the time of writing, it was also uncertain what strategy Barack Obama would adopt toward China and the effect that this would have on the bilateral relationship.

source: Geopolitics and Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia, Ralf Emmers