Two recent incidents regarding China’s maritime strategy highlight the complex nature of Beijing rise in the twenty-first century. The first story, which suggests Chinese restraint, was Beijing’s refusal to take over operations at the Gwandar naval port in Baluchistan, Pakistan. China was responding to an offer put forth by Pakistan’s Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar (apparently without China’s knowledge) after the he returned from a trip to China with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Reza.
Beijing’s refusal came as a surprise to most everyone. After all, Beijing has already invested some $200 million in building the port and it is strategically positioned to be an important component of China’s “String of Pearls” naval strategy. I have argued on Foreign Affairsthat China’s expanding maritime diplomacy is primarily driven by the need to secure access to energy reserves which are essential to sustain its rapid economic growth. Robert Kaplan, who holds a similar view on the subject and who also discusses Gwandar at length in his highly acclaimed book Monsoon, analyzes why China turned down Pakistan’s offer on Foreign Policy.
(Bonus: Fareed Zakari interviewing Robert Kaplan on his book Monsoon on Zakari’s CNN show)
Curiously, just as China was showing restraint in Pakistan, it was also increasing its aggression in the South China Sea (SCS). The SCS has long been a source of tension between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors. The area is claimed in whole or part by a dozen or so states. Sovereignty issues in the SCS are not simply matters of pride but also have great economic importance given the water’s large oil and gas reserves and fish populations.
The most recent SCS incident began last Thursday when three Chinese vessels attacked and damaged an oil exploration ship owned by PetroVietnam, Hanoi’s state-run oil and natural-gas company. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately issued scathing criticism over the attack while China remained silent until Saturday morning when a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson offered this explanation, “China’s stance on the South China Sea is clear and consistent. We oppose the oil and gas operations conducted by Vietnam, which have undermined China’s interests and jurisdictional rights in the South China Sea.” This was followed by a statement out of Beijing on Tuesday which warned Vietnam against any further action. Meanwhile, the Philippines, who has had its own share of disputes with China over the SCS, decided to enter the fray yesterday when it summoned Beijing’s envoy to Manila for consultations on the issue.
The new SCS dispute comes amidst the backdrop of this weekend’s 10th annual The Shangri-la Dialogue, an Asian Security Summit being held in Singapore which is expected to be Defense Secretary Robert Gates last overseas trip. With both Gates and his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, attending the conference, it will be interesting to see how Gates addresses the SCS issue during his keynote speech this weekend. Already, PacCom commander U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard has stated he’s “concerned” about China’s recent behavior.
I would argue, however, that China’s aggression in Southeast Asia is ultimately in the United States’ national interest so long as it doesn’t escalate into a full blown war. Last August, for example, Vietnam held its first ever defense talks with the United States largely because of its growing fear of China. Beijing’s assertiveness in the SCS will also complicate its “divide and conquer” strategy towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States has also been making inroads with ASEAN in recent years in no small part due to their fears of a rising China. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement last summer that the South China Sea was a U.S. national interest was certainly widely appreciated by ASEAN. This was followed by the Obama administration’s decision, at the urging of some notable Republican members of Congress, to appoint the first ever full time U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN earlier this year.
I’ll continue updating you on developments in these issues.
Update: Monsters & Critics reports that on Thursday Vietnamese citizens began using social media to rally people to protest against China over the South China Sea incident.