As soon as the Vietnamese President concluded his visit to India, the Chinese utilising the media issued further threats to both India and Vietnam over their agreement to explore for oil and gas in the South China Sea. On 14th October 2011 'The Global Times', that represents the views of the Chinese Communist Party, surmised that India was 'fishing in troubled waters of the South China Sea so as to accumulate bargaining chips on other issues with China 'and warned in general that 'some countries' are taking risks in the belief that China would not retaliate. However the article concluded that 'China has to dish out one or two patient and firm retaliatory measures'. The warning could not have been clearer to countries such as India and Vietnam.
Earlier on 29th September 2011 a well known Chinese Daily 'The Global Times' carried an article entitled, 'Time to teach those around the South China Sea a lesson' authored by Long Tao a strategic analyst with the China Energy Fund Committee. As is the Chinese Communist style and custom, Long Tao, is probably a pseudonym for an important member of the Chinese hierarchy who wishes to remain anonymous. As is evident from the title of the article, the author conveyed warnings that were rather explicit, with Vietnam and the Philippines singled out as the main villains. According to the author of the article, trouble began in the South China Sea area only after North and South Vietnam had been re-united. It reminds Vietnam of the 'punishment' it had received in 1979! The remedy the author suggests is to 'think ahead and strike first' before things get ‘out of hand’. And 'we should not waste the opportunity to launch tiny scale battles’. The author also points out that there are over 1000 oil and gas wells, four airfields and other numerous facilities--none of them Chinese—that can be ‘burned down to the ground’. The article also commends the 'action' that Russia took in the Caucasus and blandly states that after some time everyone quietly acquiesced in the Russian 'action'. If the article was solely meant to frighten and intimidate South- East Asian countries, it probably achieved its purpose for most countries began to pay serious attention on how to enhance their security. For the US such articles are a political bonanza, since for countries in South- East Asia the only recourse open to them is to naturally gravitate towards the United States. And that is precisely what is happening.
By issuing such ill thought through threats, all that the Chinese have achieved is to push countries in the region closer to each other and in the longer term to actively seek the cover of US military power. In yet another article the ‘Global Times’ lamented that now even Japan seems to be eyeing 'further alliances on the South China Sea issue' and that it was working with the US to 'push for a multi-lateral negotiations framework within ASEAN.' In what it thought of the Japanese attempt to enter the dispute, the article had only harsh words. The South China Sea issue was only between China and the relevant South East Asian countries and that the Japanese attempt to solve the issue through multilateral negotiations or to further internationalize it 'will only cause more complications'. For the Japanese the article had a word of advice in that the Japanese approach 'will adversely affect the harmonious atmosphere among adjacent countries while jeopardising Sino-Japanese mutual beneficial relationships.' And finally a homily, 'it is neither wise nor constructive for Japan to engage with irrelevant countries on the subject.' The threat element could not have been missed by Japanese security planners.
Perhaps quickly realising the folly of making such threats, the Chinese published another article entitled, 'Patience and peace will keep serving our strategy’ by Sun Peisong. The article correctly surmised that the ‘US was capable of forming a coalition amongst neighbouring countries whose interests are affected by the territorial dispute and raising the alliance against China’ and that [such articles] only gave the US 'rhetorical advantage against China'. In what was obviously an advice to hotheads amongst the Chinese leadership the article urged 'patience' and that such patience was 'equally useful in the geopolitical conflicts that we are facing' and that 'patience in foreign policy was not to be underestimated’. Finally, the article urged the leadership that 'leverage is not gained through aggression, but through caution and wisdom'.
It is perhaps too early to say which way the wind is blowing, but a hint is discernable in the public statement issued after the recent meeting between the Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and President Hu Jintao. Both sides declared that they would not 'take action’ that could further 'complicate the issue before the disputes are settled through dialogue'. In other words the two main protagonists in the South China Sea area agreed that they would not resort to force; thus nullifying the 'advice' contained in earlier articles.
Another reason why the Chinese hastily corrected themselves perhaps was the fact that they could not have been unaware of the strong stand taken by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In a sharply worded press statement, Clinton had stated that 'we oppose the threat or the use of force by any claimant in the South China Sea to advance its claims or interfere with legitimate economic activity' and that the US supports a 'collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving various disputes'. There was a warning also in that the US was 'concerned' with recent incidents and urged each party to 'comply with its commitments.'
The strategy that smaller countries of South East Asia seem to be following is to take a unified stance on the South China Sea issue and to negotiate collectively under the auspices of ASEAN with China. On their negotiating tactics the South East Asian countries appear to have received the backing of both the US as well as Japan. For China this is not a welcome development. China had steadfastly maintained that it would like to deal with the countries of South East Asia on a bilateral basis and not through or under the auspices of ASEAN. China’s reasons are faultless for dealing with these countries on an individual basis it can easily pick them off one by one. Dealing with them on a collective basis is a whole new ball game.
The dilemma for the Chinese leadership thus remains acute. Any further bluster or threats will only further solidify the anti-Chinese stance that seems to be developing in South East Asian countries, backed from the outside by the US and Japan. The issuing of threats or even if they contemplate action against South-East Asian countries as also India and Japan would leave them with few friends in Asia; perhaps with the notable exceptions of North Korea and Pakistan. The dilemma for the Chinese is very real.
Views are those of the author
* The author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and a Member of the National Human Rights Commission.
Author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org