The Wall Street Journal: March 27, 1997

China's Creeping Assertiveness

By GERALD SEGAL

In the pre-nuclear era, powers rose (and fell) as a result of a great war. In our age, rising powers have to be more careful. Thus when the world's only non-status-quo power--China--tries to rise in East Asia, it has to creep towards predominance. But make no mistake, there is now a clear pattern of creeping Chinese assertiveness. The latest, much under-reported evidence comes from China's invasion of a Vietnamese natural gas field on March 8.

In early 1995, we saw the seizure of Mischief Reef from the Philippines, in March 1996 it was bellicose threats against Taiwan's democratic electoral process, and in March 1997 China snatched a natural gas field from Vietnam. Each of these three events demonstrates a single clear pattern and lesson for East Asia--an unconstrained China will take what it claims as its own, albeit carefully. It only pauses when it meets superior power.

For those, especially in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who put their faith in simple dialogue and engagement with China, this pattern teaches that they need to have a policy for both engagement and constraint of China's unwanted action. This policy mixture, best called "constrainment," is little practiced in Asean, but there are signs that it may be increasingly coming into fashion.

When China put its Kan Tan III drilling rig 90 kilometers off Vietnam's Chan May Dong Cape, it was only a small, 50-kilometer step from the Yacheng gas field. The Yacheng field, operated with ARCO and with 3.4 trillion cubic feet of gas, lies south of Hainan island, where China is building a pipeline for gas supplies to the mainland and Hong Kong. Hainan's booming economy (and that of the rest of China) is in great need of ever increasing energy supplies. Not only would the specific Yacheng field make far more commercial sense if more gas supplies could be found in the region, but China as a whole knows it must secure vast new energy resources to fuel its economic growth. Energy resources in the Russian Far East or in Indonesian waters are too dangerous to approach, at least for some time. But weaker Vietnam is another matter.

Hence the small, but important step taken by China into what is called Block 113 by Vietnam. This area was prospected by Vietnam in 1983 and clearly falls on the Vietnamese side of the median line between Chinese and Vietnamese territory. Vietnam lodged a formal protest with China and is still issuing increasingly sharply worded demands that China withdraw its rig and begin talks. The Chinese will no doubt, as they have done in the past, be happy enough to talk. But there is no sign that China will cease drilling. Short of using force against the Chinese in the region, this territory, as with the rest of the nearby Paracel islands, will come under permanent Chinese control.

The best that can be said about the Chinese legal claim is that it is "disputed"; most international lawyers would support the legality of the Vietnamese case. Chinese action is also in clear violation of the agreement Asean thought it had with China that further change in the status would be by mutual agreement. This sounds uncannily like the Philippines misunderstanding in 1995 that China would not use force. China did at the time, of course, ejecting Filipino fishermen from Mischief Reef. But more than two years after the incident on Mischief Reef, Asean is still vainly trying to get China publicly to promise to adhere to Asean's 1992 Manila Declaration, which calls for only peaceful solutions to the South China Sea disputes.

The pattern is clear. China will take tiny steps forward, create new facts, and wait patiently for an opportunity to move further. China never gives up territory. In the 1970s there used to be worry about Chinese assertiveness in the Paracel Islands but now China has taken them all and the focus is now on the Spratly islands further south in the South China Sea. Even in the much-touted, but uncompleted, negotiations with Russia, China would gain 15 times as much territory as it is scheduled to give up, including all the most "strategic" portions.

Despite the clarity of China's pattern, and the lessons that should have been learned from it, myopia in East Asia abounds. Witness the naive welcome for the "goodwill" visit of a Chinese destroyer and frigate to the Philippines in March 1997. There will no doubt be more such visits until China takes the next island from the Philippines. Asean will no doubt conclude that it should give China "a stern lecture" in the private confines of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), but public criticism will be muted because "it is not the Asean way." Now that the Chinese fox is active in the ARF chicken coop, we can be sure that the ARF will do nothing to constrain China's unwanted action.


The United States' main military ally in East Asia is Japan and in the long run there can be no sustained Sino-American confrontation without Japan offering firm support to the United States.


Some in Asean understand this pattern of China's creeping assertiveness only too well. Indonesia, whose Natuna gas fields in the southern Spratly islands is the world's largest, has come to appreciate that it too might suffer "a Mischief Reef" if it does not look after its own security. A defense pact with Australia in 1995 and large-scale military maneuvers in the Natuna area in 1996 were signals that constraining China was needed. Indonesia's reaction, all the while with its jaw locked into Asean-speak about engagement with China, may be out of step with many of its Asean colleagues, but perhaps not for long. An important motive for Vietnam joining Asean in July 1995 was to deter China through association with allies. The strategy has had so far only the slightest impact. Vietnam knows that it will need stronger allies and at least in the short-term it is most likely to find them beyond Asean.

When Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto visited Asean countries in January 1997, his most amenable discussions on security issues and the China problem were reportedly in his last stop, Vietnam. The Japanese and Vietnamese agreed to strengthen their military exchanges and security dialogue about China. Japan had just been scared by squabbles with China in 1996 over the disputed Senkaku islands. It is also intriguing to consider the signal sent to China by the steady improvement in U.S.-Vietnamese military relations. The visit by Admiral Joseph Prueher, U.S. Commander in Chief of the Pacific Command on March 20-22 was described by the admiral as "a nascent military relationship without an end-game in sight." The Americans are proposing arms sales, tactical discussions, and training exchanges, including in jungle warfare. Admiral Pruher's visit came only a few weeks after a mission of Vietnamese colonels to U.S. facilities in Hawaii and Washington. It's ironic to say the least, but nevertheless sensible geo-strategy for Vietnam and the United States to develop a much closer military relationship.

The United States' main military ally in East Asia is Japan and in the long run there can be no sustained Sino-American confrontation without Japan offering firm support to the United States. Japan certainly seems to be increasingly worried about China: A Gallup poll in March showed a 22-point rise (to 44%) in the percentage of Japanese in the past year identifying China as "a threat." Japan and Australia are clearly looking for ways to modernize their military relationship with the United States.

The centrality of the United States was demonstrated by the events surrounding Chinese threats to Taiwan in March 1996. The deployment of two American aircraft carrier battle groups--the largest American military deployment in East Asia since the end of the Vietnam war--was the kind of lesson that China understands. China will, in due course, no doubt resume its military threats against Taiwan; Chinese officials have reportedly set a date of 2010 for the recovery of Taiwan. But China has grown to understand that even if it is able to purchase far more Russian military technology of 1980s vintage, it will be in no shape to challenge a United States that is embarking on the latest revolution in military affairs.

Continuing American resolve, stiffening backbones in parts of East Asia and the ability to get China to back down in the face of superior power, are important reasons not to kow-tow pre-emptively to a rising China. It is also true that China pursues its irredentism carefully. It is restrained by concerns over high political risk and superior countervailing force. It is just such a calculation that leads Vietnam to hope that it is not too late to restrain China's creeping seizure of the South China Sea.

Thus the wilder scenarios about the coming war with China--e.g. Dragonstrike by Humphrey Hawksley and Simon Holberton, or Samuel Huntington's concluding chapter in The Clash of Civilizations--are wide of the mark. Although these fictional accounts of a war with China begin with a Sino-Vietnamese clash over energy resources in the South China Sea, they grossly exaggerate Chinese military power. Equally significantly, they seriously minimize the relative ease with which a currently weak China can be constrained, if only China's current and prospective victims would not be so self-constrained.


Mr. Segal is a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and Director of Britain's Pacific Asia Programme.


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