A New Maritime Security Policy?
China’s growing assertiveness is a source of worry for its neighbours. Several are concerned about China’s growing sensitivity and assertiveness on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity
Is China adopting a new maritime security policy?
Several countries are concerned about China’s growing sensitivity and assertiveness on issues of sovereignty and territorial — including maritime — integrity, especially in the past five years. China’s actions have heightened tensions in the South China Sea and with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. China has neither hesitated to warn off Indian Navy and survey ships while they are in Vietnamese territorial waters.
Interesting in this context is a recent (May 28, 2013) article in the People’s Daily, written by Mian Yang, dean of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) and younger brother of Chinese state councillor and former foreign minister Yang Jiechi. Written prior to the recent summit (June 7-8, 2013) between Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Obama, he quite candidly stated that the increase in China’s comprehensive national strength had given its “new leaders” more confidence in dealing with the international community.
Mian Yang emphasised that this “self-confidence” has enabled China’s leaders to be “very firm” in safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity while simultaneously being flexible in dealings with smaller countries. He revealed that China’s new leaders will focus more on the neighbourhood and travel oftener in the region.
Reflecting this firmness on sovereignty and territorial issues, Chinese president Xi Jinping, according to the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun (June 12), used the term “core interests” at the recent summit with Obama while referring to the dispute with Japan over the sovereignty of the Senkakus, which China calls the Diaoyu islands. China had referred to the islands as its “core interest” for the first time this April during a routine weekly news conference by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson. The US has, incidentally, briefed Japan on the talks at the summit.
Earlier this January, China’s National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation (NASMG) announced that Sinomaps Press had published new maps of China. These identify more than 130 islands and islets in the South China Sea, most of which have not featured on previous official Chinese maps. The earlier maps featured only some of the larger islands. The new maps also have an enlarged inset of the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) islands.
Predictably, the new map shows the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh and a large chunk of Jammu and Kashmir, mainly comprising Aksai Chin, as part of China. Pages of China’s new passports contain similar maps.
A major irritant for Beijing is, however, the maritime and aerial surveillance regularly carried out by US ships and aircraft inside China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and along China’s air-space off its coast. China has voiced its objections and in recent years intermittently shown its ire by confronting US aircraft and vessels, probably becoming the only country to do so.
A major accident was averted in April 2001 when a Chinese Air Force J-8 jet brushed wing-tips with a US Air Force EP-3 spy plane which was flying near China’s secret submarine base at Sanya on the southern tip of Hainan Island. The US pilot crash-landed his aircraft, but the Chinese pilot lost his life. Since 2009, several close confrontations have been reported between Chinese submarines, frigates and US navy vessels like the USS Impeccable and USS Victorious and the unarmed hydrographic vessel USS Bowditch. Chinese fishing ships reportedly harassed the USS Bowditch at least half a dozen times in China’s EEZ.
After one such incident ‘hawkish’ retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force senior colonel Dai Xu, who is a regular commentator on Chinese TV channels and author of a book from which Xi Jinping often quotes, told the Chinese media that “concrete military actions should be taken.” He said “First warning, second expulsion. And if that does not work, the invading vessels can be directly surrounded and sunk.” Chinese military officers have also raised the issue at international conferences and on the sidelines of sessions of the National People’s Congress — China’s version of a parliament.
The issue resurfaced this May at a working session on maritime security during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
Articulating long-held objections to the surveillance of China’s coastline and EEZ by US aircraft and ships, PLA senior colonel Zhou Bo disclosed that China had “thought of reciprocating” by “sending ships and planes to the US EEZ”, and had actually done so “a few times”. This is the first occasion when a Chinese military official has confirmed reports in circulation for some time that PLA Navy (PLAN) vessels had been detected around Okinawa and Guam.
The disclosure is significant for countries in the region as it suggests that Beijing’s maritime policy is set to shift towards increased assertiveness. It implies that as China’s military might rises and its economic and strategic interests expand, China will copy US behaviour. It will accord to itself the right to carry out surveys and gather intelligence inside the EEZs of other countries. China’s actions will initially affect South Korea, Japan and countries with competing claims in the South China Sea. As China’s navy extends its reach and capabilities, this policy will directly impact countries like India.
Ni Lexiong, director of the Sea Power and Defence Policy Research Institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, confirmed that the PLA senior colonel’s remarks reflected the “changing concept of maritime affairs” of China’s leaders “following the rapid development of China’s maritime industry and rising strength of its naval force in the past decade”. The remarks also suggest that Beijing’s interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea could be under review.
The author is a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Government of India. Views expressed are personal.