China and the South China Sea

Wall Street Journal
December 6, 2012, 10:55 a.m. ET
China’s Nationalist Wave
Beijing’s naval aggression is a threat to peace in the Pacific.

The risk of a serious naval confrontation in East Asia is rising. China recently announced guidelines, effective January 1, for its maritime “police” to board and seize foreign vessels in waters around the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. On Tuesday, Hanoi responded with stepped up patrols and revealed that Chinese fishing boats had cut the cables of its seismic survey ship last week.

Philippines Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario revealed in an interview with the South China Morning Post published November 30 that China had communicated its intention to station ships permanently at the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries and was the scene of a standoff earlier this year. Mr. del Rosario called China’s behavior “dictatorial.”

Beijing also continues to challenge Japan’s control over the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyus in Chinese. Chinese maritime surveillance and fisheries vessels loiter outside the 12-mile territorial limit, occasionally crossing inside to force the Japanese coast guard to respond.

When Beijing’s campaign of assertiveness began three years ago, many observers believed it was either a miscalculation that would be corrected, or else a temporary phase related to jockeying for the recent leadership transition. It has proved to be neither.

What is driving Beijing? Chinese military men, who make up about 20% of the Central Committee, have become increasingly vocal about their desire to drive the U.S. out of their adjacent (and not-so-adjacent) waters. The Communist Party’s longstanding rhetoric about ending a “century of humiliation” at foreign hands makes such calls difficult to ignore.

Another driver is the uneasy relationship between the military and their putative civilian masters. On Wednesday, new Chinese leader Xi Jinping publicly exhorted military officers to “put an end” to corruption and remain completely loyal to the Communist Party—a call that presumably would not have been necessary if such loyalty was not in doubt.

It’s possible Mr. Xi is also uncomfortable with his navy’s aggressive maneuvers. So far, however, the Party’s response has been to buy off the military brass with huge annual budget increases. The new submarines and surface ships that these budgets purchase create pressure to deploy. Outgoing top leader Hu Jintao used his final report at last month’s Party Congress to call for China to become a maritime power.

Perhaps most important is the revival of nationalism as a major theme in Chinese rhetoric. Mr. Xi has adopted “revival of the nation” as his first major slogan, signaling his intention to be a reform-oriented nationalist. Last week he led the Politburo Standing Committee on a visit to an exhibition on foreign imperialism at the National Museum, and his remarks suggest he wants to harness patriotic feeling to overcome political opposition.

The challenge for neighboring countries is how to respond. Failure to contest China’s deployments risks conceding territorial claims under international law. But an overly assertive response might further inflame Chinese nationalism—or accidentally start a shooting war.

It doesn’t help China’s neighbors that they are increasingly outclassed by Chinese maritime forces. Japan is scrambling to reinforce its coast guard, and the Philippines wants more castoffs from the U.S. to cobble together a navy. For now, only the U.S. Seventh Fleet can deter Beijing’s push to expand its territory.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has begun to shed the traditional U.S. posture of strategic ambiguity on these disputes. The Journal reported last week that a delegation to Beijing of retired officials led by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage delivered the message that while the U.S. has remained neutral on the sovereignty issue, it is treaty-bound to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus. The U.S. Senate followed last week with a vote for an amendment to reaffirm that commitment.

Across Asia, alarm bells are ringing that Beijing has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatic internationalism. One can hope Mr. Xi will be willing and able to rein in his military’s increasing bellicosity. That is more likely if the U.S. and its allies remain united and determined to deter it.

A version of this article appeared December 8, 2012, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: China’s Nationalist Wave.