China's muscular military projection

THE United States, Japan and South-east Asian countries, wanting to know more about China's intentions in extending the reach and power of its armed forces, have repeatedly asked Beijing in recent years for more transparency about the military build-up.

Now they have it. The latest defence White Paper, issued last week by the Information Office of the State Council, China's Cabinet, set out a new oceanic policy that ties the national security and territorial integrity of the world's most populous country to economic development.

In essence, what China is saying is this: When we were weak, our neighbours stole islands and other maritime territory, as well as access to valuable resources from the water and seabed, which rightfully belong to us. Today, we are stronger, and becoming even stronger. So we will assert our offshore rights and interests more forcefully.

The White Paper puts it this way: "China is a major maritime as well as land country. The seas and oceans provide immense space and abundant resources for China's sustainable development, and thus are of vital importance to the people's well-being and China's future.

"It is an essential national development strategy to exploit, utilise and protect the seas and oceans, and build China into a maritime power," the document continues.

"It is an important duty for the PLA (People's Liberation Army, the official name of the Chinese armed forces) to resolutely safeguard China's maritime rights and interests."

The last defence White Paper, issued in March 2011, was organised in a different way and contained less information about the structure, striking power and real aims of China's military.

The April 2013 document, titled The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces, contains a completely new chapter on Defending National Sovereignty, Security and Territorial Integrity, in which the section on safeguarding China's maritime rights and interests is a key feature.

China wants to create and control a maritime security zone off its coast that stretches deep into the maritime heart of South-east Asia.

It also wants the fisheries and seabed resources, including oil, gas and minerals, which are already being exploited by rival claimants in this zone or may lie in reserve.

Does this mean that China will use force to take back islands in the East China Sea disputed with Japan, and in the South China Sea disputed with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei?

The White Paper is coy on this point. It states the oft-repeated official mantra that China "unswervingly pursues an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defence policy that is defensive in nature".

From China's perspective, recovering property and resources taken by Japan and South-east Asian countries, and thus restoring what Beijing regards as China's territorial integrity, is a policy that is both legitimate and defensive in nature.

Of the maritime flashpoints, the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea is currently the most combustible. Japan administers the islands. China, which calls them Diaoyu, is challenging Tokyo's hold.

Military and para-military confrontation in the waters around, and airspace over, the uninhabited islands is being exacerbated by nationalism on both sides.

China's official Xinhua news agency reported that a Chinese navy destroyer and frigate, both armed with missiles, were patrolling territorial waters around the disputed islands last Wednesday to "mark the signing of an unequal treaty" between China and Japan in 1895.

Beijing says that following defeat in a two-year war with Japan at the time, China was forced to cede Taiwan and its affiliated islands, including the Diaoyu, to Tokyo.

Asked about China's intensified patrols around the disputed islands, Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun replied that what was "important now is for Japan to stop activities that undermine China's territorial sovereignty and take actions to ensure the issue is resolved".

He added that the "Chinese government and the armed forces are capable and determined to safeguard the sovereignty of the islands".

Beijing does not want to risk a war with Japan that could draw in the United States, which has a longstanding mutual defence treaty with Tokyo.

But China is clearly ready to use assertive military tactics, and an implicit threat of force, to gain what it claims in both the East China and South China seas.

The Chinese naval destroyer and frigate patrolling near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands last week were part of a four-ship flotilla that caused a stir in South-east Asia last month when they held amphibious exercises in the disputed Spratly Islands and then sailed to James Shoal just 80km from Malaysia's coast and only 250km from Brunei.

China calls the shoal Zengmu Reef and refers to it as "the southernmost part of Chinese territory", even though it is entirely submerged and is well over 1,500km from Hainan Island, the nearest undisputed part of China.

At the shoal, Chinese sailors and marines vowed to safeguard China's sovereignty and other forms of jurisdiction over a huge swathe of the South China Sea.

The flotilla included the Jinggangshan, China's biggest amphibious landing ship. It is designed to launch attacks on small islands and is the first Chinese naval vessel able to carry helicopters, hovercraft, smaller landing craft and a full battalion of marines.

On April 12, after the Jinggangshan returned to its base at Sanya on the south coast of Hainan overlooking the South China Sea, President Xi Jinping had lunch on board and talked to the crew in an obvious endorsement of their territorial recovery mission.

Under his leadership for the next 10 years, China is expected to further strengthen its long-range naval, air and amphibious capabilities.

As it does so, the temptation to take by force what cannot be gained by negotiation will increase unless the disputants in the East China and South China seas can agree on effective ways of managing and resolving their disagreements.

So, too, will the risk of conflict by miscalculation or accident.

Peace-keeping and peace-making are tough assignments in such complex and emotive disputes. But they are objectives that Asean should continue to pursue when it holds its annual meetings in Brunei this week.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.