US think-tank warns China spat to worsen

Posted at 05/18/2012 8:37 AM | Updated as of 05/19/2012 2:02 AM

WASHINGTON D.C. - China’s growing belligerence in disputed waters of the South China Sea will only grow and worsen, according to testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“China has a coherent multi-dimensional approach to global competition which also includes the domination of sea-lanes and civil airspace in East Asia. This is one of Beijing’s top strategic goals, not just for economic and military advantage, but also for domestic political legitimacy and regional diplomatic propaganda,” said John Tkacik Jr., Director of the Future Asia Project.

The Future Asia Project is part of the Washington DC-think tank International Strategy and Assessment Center that specializes on American security issues.

“China’s increasingly adamantine territorial sea claims in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea is certain to be resolved only one of two ways: either China gets what it wants or it will use armed conflict to enforce its so-called ‘core interests’,” Tkacik told the congressional panel last March.

“China’s military has systematically garrisoned several chains of submerged coral shoals in the Spratlys west of the southern Philippine island of Palawan, secretly emplacing huge caissons of concrete in their shallow water and constructing massive platforms and anchorages. The Chinese forcefully ejected Philippines troops from Mischief Reef in 1995, and the Philippines has been complaining about it ever since,” he testified.

Tkacik said China was tightening its strategic presence in the South China Sea. He quoted China’s East Fleet deputy commander Admiral Zhang Huachen’s explanation: “With the expansion of the country's economic interests, the navy wants to better protect the country's transportation routes and the safety of our major sea lanes.”

He listed recent incidents involving China and other countries.

April 2001 – Chinese fighter jet collides with an American “Orion” patrol plane off Hainan Island.

June 11, 2009 – Chinese submarine cuts the sonar array cable being towed by the USS John McCain about 140 miles northwest of Subic Bay.

August 2011 – Chinese ships challenged an Indian Navy ship transiting two Vietnamese ports.

February 2012 – Chinese vessels prevented Vietnamese fishing boats from seeking storm refuge in the Paracel Islands

A month after Tkacik’s testimony, Chinese ships stopped the Philippines from arresting Chinese fishermen caught harvesting endangered and protected marine life in Scarborough Shoal, about a hundred miles off the main Philippine island of Luzon.

The stand-off has triggered protests in Manila as well as from Filipinos who picketed Chinese consular offices in major US cities.

In March 2010, Tkacik said, Chinese assistant foreign minister Cui Tianki told US officials that its claim to the South China Sea was at par with its claims to Tibet and Taiwan.

“Thereafter, Chinese diplomats proclaimed a ‘core interest’ in the South China Sea to progressively more senior Americans – and Southeast Asians as well. In tandem, Chinese security scholars declared in the official media that “by adding the South China Sea to its core interests, China has shown its determination to secure its maritime resources and strategic waters,” he explained.

State Secretary Hillary Clinton responded shortly after by declaring “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”

Following the Scarborough Shoal stand-off, China abruptly rejected banana exports from the Philippines and discouraged Chinese tourists from visiting the country.

Tkacik observed China resorts to “economic punishment” of Southeast Asian neighbors that “have the temerity to challenge new Chinese assertions of territorial sovereignty in South China Sea waters.”

A September 2010 flare-up in the Japanese Senkaku islands that China also claims as hers led to the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain who rammed a Japanese coast guard cutter, Tkacik recounted.

“This was followed by three weeks of steadily escalating diplomatic demarches, protests and threats culminating in a de facto Chinese embargo on exports of Chinese rare-earths oxides (essential in the manufacture of advanced electronic 23 devices) to Japan,” he said.

“Is China’s expanding security footprint in the South China Sea a problem for the US as well as Southeast Asia?,” Tkacik asked, “As former Asia policy aide to President George W. Bush, Michael Green, put it: ‘The Chinese are elbowing, seeing how far they can go before the referee blows the whistle on them and they get a yellow card . . . This is also a [Chinese] signal to Vietnam, the Philippines, and the smaller countries in the region, that ‘look, if we can do this to the Americans, what chance do you think you have?’”