China’s perilous game plan

July 16,2016 - 09:02 PM

The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in support of the Philippines’ case against China’s hegemonic claim over almost the entire South China Sea will surely heighten tensions and instability in the region, with Beijing’s defiant insistence on “undisputable sovereignty” over the strategic sea.

While President Duterte and his Cabinet submit the landmark ruling to diligent scrutiny, it is worth considering the following background:
China’s rejection of the ruling is dictated by its national security requirements and ambitious global agenda. When the case was filed in 2013, China warned that it would not recognize the tribunal’s ruling. To make sure the whole world got the message, the Chinese government consolidated its stake in the disputed waters by illegally constructing airfields, radar systems, docks, and other military structures defended by missiles. If Taiwan is an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” so are those artificial islands, in Beijing’s calculus. Obviously, China aims to stay on those facilities for good, confident that possession is superior to law—and the Duterte administration’s emerging appeasement policy toward China will also embolden it.

Why would China go rogue and blemish its reputation in the global community at a time when its leadership is reaching out to the world with economic diplomacy programs such as its Silk Road, investment and infrastructure initiatives?

If we go by official records, China’s historical claims within its arbitrary “nine-dash line” that marks almost the entire South China Sea as its private lake are completely groundless because prior to 1932, most of its treaties, constitutions, maps and official documents identified Hainan island, a mere 19 miles from Guandong province, as its southernmost territory. It’s really all about ambition, national security issues and power: Xi Jinping’s dream to make his country a credible global power requires that China break out of the encirclement of powerful military forces that the United States had deployed around China since the end of World War II.

And since China is highly dependent on trade, it is of strategic necessity for it to have significant control over the world’s most important seaways which handle over $5 trillion in trade annually, and waters that may yield enormous natural resources. The impact on China would be catastrophic if a hostile power with the capability (read: America) were to close the chokepoints of those waters in the event of conflict. Waving the patriotic flag may also be handy in managing dissent and internal power struggles as the Chinese government copes with a seriously ailing economy.

A topographic map of China reveals this geopolitical reality: Its land borders in the west, southwest and north are forbidding to invaders, protected as they are by vast deserts, severe weather conditions, high mountain ranges like the Himalayas, and thick, hilly jungles in the south. Those natural barriers give China great strategic depth, as long as it maintains order in restive Xinjiang and Tibet. China’s geographic vulnerability lies along its only verdant side that is within 400 miles of its 10,000-mile-long coasts: its very heartland, where most of its 1.4 billion people live and where its great cities, major ports, farms and biggest industries are located. China is thus virtually a narrow coastal state, much smaller than its huge size on a map.

China was bullied at the turn of the 19th century by rapacious Western powers that invaded it through its unprotected coasts and forced onerous trade terms on a country weakened by social unrest and major famines. Thus, its current leaders are determined that their country would never again undergo such humiliation.

How? By protecting its soft eastern flank (where 8 of its 10 ports comprise the world’s busiest harbors), with fortified islands and a credible blue-water navy that could project power and sea control as far as the “First Island Chain,” an arc stretching from the waters of Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. China’s nine-dash line is the southern part of that arc.

In fact the late admiral Liu Huaqing, the “father of the modern Chinese navy,” had an ambitious strategy to go beyond the “Second Island Chain” (Japan to the Mariana islands, Palau, and Indonesia) by 2020. He envisioned a navy with global reach, composed of carrier strike groups, by 2050—an event that would mark China’s emergence as a true superpower, just like the United States. Thus, defying the arbitral court’s decision is a small price to pay for the demands of national security and its global dream.

This is where the potential for grave miscalculation and trouble begins. Where does one draw the line on national security? Three hundred miles off the coast of China? The reefs of Panatag, Ayungin and Kalayaan? What about the deep canyons along both sides of the Philippines, with their hundreds of miles of perfect hiding places for nuclear-armed Chinese submarines? All those places are ticking time bombs in the power game of empires.

Ultimately, economics, not international law and world opinion, will be the decisive factor in curbing China’s hegemonic agenda. Building supercarriers is one thing; having seasoned admirals to command them and well-trained crew to man them is another. Developing a world-class navy would entail tremendous costs. And lacking the rich naval tradition of the United States anchored on World War II and modern-era battles, China would take generations of catch-up effort in complex warfare expertise. More costs.

With China’s troubled economy, internal discontent and power struggles resurfacing, and much slower growth in the long term due to the crisis buffeting export-dependent economies and the continued global recession, its leaders are faced with king-size headaches in attempting to strike a balance among ambition, necessity and capability.

China would be wise to recall that not too long ago, the mighty Soviet Union fragmented and collapsed under the weight of its excessive ambition and hubris.

Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.

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TAGS: China, dispute, Philippines, south China Sea, territorial dispute, territory, The Hague, UN, USA, war

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