Will the Philippine lawsuit in The Hague against China’s island-grabbing in the South China (West Philippine Sea) provoke Beijing into declaring its own Asia-Pacific ‘Monroe Doctrine’?
In 1828, President James Monroe proclaimed, as a principle of US foreign policy, that Washington would regard “any intervention by outside powers in the politics of the two Americas as a potentially hostile act against the United States.”
Now Western analysts half-expect Beijing to follow suit—most likely by demanding that air-and-sea craft transiting these disputed areas seek Chinese permission. But this would be a sign of weakness, in the view of the Australian Sinologist, You Ji.
An ethnic Han and a keen student of the Chinese military, You Ji also has a likely explanation for China’s unaccustomed assertiveness in the South China Sea. He says Beijing’s strategists seem to believe that the “threat of action may be the best form of war prevention at (the Chinese military’s) current stage of development.”
Inclining to independence
Beijing’s planners apparently expect their country’s security environment to deteriorate as the twenty-first century deepens.
They see Taiwanese opinion as inclining unavoidably toward independence. And since Beijing regards the rebel island as an inalienable part of the Chinese homeland, a conflict across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait has, in their view, become unavoidable.
Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) lost heavily in local elections held last year, after a campaign during which the party had advocated even closer economic ties with the mainland. Taiwan successfully negotiated a free-trade pact with China in 2010.
To boost the KMT’s chances at general elections set for middle January, President Ma Ying-jeou has gone as far as to arrange a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in neutral Singapore.
But the two leaders’ minute-long handshake, across seven decades of hostility, seems only to have backfired on the KMT. Ma’s surrogate—KMT Chairman and Mayor of Taipei Eric Chu—is still forecast to lose to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party candidate, Tsai Ing-wen. (Ma is barred constitutionally from seeking a third term.)
‘Shocked and awed’
The likelihood that it might have to fight a war over Taiwan seems the key reason the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been frenziedly building airstrips, anchorages, barracks and other military facilities on Southeast Asia’s great inland sea.
Like the Iraqi forces, the Chinese military professionals were apparently “shocked and awed” by the US conduct of the 1991 Gulf War—at which the Americans field-tested weapons and command systems that use the new information, communication and computer technologies.
On the very first day of the war, the US forces claimed they destroyed fully 30% of their Iraqi targets.
Since then, the PLA has adapted its doctrine to the revolution in military affairs. The PLA’s force structure and grand strategy is gearing it to fight a high-technology conflict with a major military power.
Focus of national feeling
Meanwhile Beijing continues to hang tough on China Sea issues. Most recently, President Xi refused to back down before President Obama’s demand that China stop building habitable islets on the reefs and rocks of the Spratlys.
Clearly we haven’t seen the last of this new standoff; the Americans plan more “patrols” by their warships and surveillance aircraft on the disputed waters.
Xi’s refusal has hardened the Obama administration’s approach to the whole issue. But it has also burnished Xi’s image at home—where China’s China Sea claims have become the focus of intense national feeling.
Even toward the end of their lives, Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai had kept control of the diplomacy and the use of force that took the Paracels from the Vietnamese in 1974.
Settlement of its irredentist claims is central to Beijing’s effort to regain its great-power status—to become rich, powerful and respected once again, after being humiliated by the powers for a hundred years.
Since its 1949 civil-war victory, the CCP has settled 17 out of its 23 border disputes with neighbor states—some peaceably, others forcibly. (China and India fought a brief Himalayan border war in 1962.)
Building a blue-water navy
The weight of China’s military power still lies heavily on the side of its land forces—a legacy of its Maoist doctrine of “people’s war.”
In 1999 the army still made up 70%, the airforce 16% and the navy only 9.4% of all China’s armed forces. (The U.S. military manpower ratio was 40% to the navy, 34% to the army and 26% to the air force.)
But Beijing is being pushed outward by its economic opening—it now imports much of its oil—and its great-power ambition. Currently it claims a coastline of 18,000 kms and an expanse of the South China Sea measuring 3.6 million square kms. Two-thirds of its maritime claim is subject to rival claims.
Beijing’s need to defend its coastal heartland and to protect its overseas trade are driving it to build a “blue-water” navy capable ultimately of projecting Chinese power on the world ocean.
Already China is gearing up its first aircraft carrier (purchased from the Ukraine) and building its second one. The airstrips the PLA navy is gouging out of the China Sea’s reefs and shoals will enable its jet fighters to stay aloft for longer periods along its vulnerable coastline without aerial refuelling.
Rising China, hegemonic America
The world—in the Chinese view—is “entering a stage of major adjustments and changes, and China cannot remain silent like it was before.”
The global center of political gravity is tilting away from the Atlantic, where it has been since the sixteenth century. Meanwhile Deng Xiaoping’s epochal reforms are changing the character of China’s economy and reawakening the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people.
Just a lifetime ago, China and the United States—one a land, the other a sea power—were allied against imperial Japan. Now they confront each other across the expanse of the Pacific.
Is a conflict inherent in their relationship?
The University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer believes China and the United States would behave as other great powers had done before them.
A rising China would seek eventually to dominate Asia, while the United States—as the Pacific hegemon—would do all it could to prevent that from happening.
Already both powers are building up their Asia-Pacific alliances. Washington has announced a $250-million plan to “bolster” the “naval capabilities” of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan.
Meanwhile Beijing is turning closer to Moscow. The two are building up a “Greater Eurasia” grouping of the Shanghai-6 states plus Iran. Moscow-led Eurasia would then be integrated with Xi Jinping’s “Silk Road” Initiative to connect East Asia to Central Asia overland.
Beijing has also been actively courting Burma and the other states of peninsular Southeast Asia.
These next years will test the mettle of the leaders of the Pacific Basin.