Saturday, July 25, 2015

• Asian security: Small reefs, big problems - The Economist

The Economist
Asian coastguards are in the front line of the struggle to check China
EVERY ten or so days, and rarely at weekends, the Chinese coastguard arrives at eight in the morning, in time for the Japanese foreign ministry to deliver a formal complaint to its Chinese counterpart by lunchtime. 
 The Economist

 
It is something of a ritual these days.
Chinese vessels breach the 12-mile territorial limit of Japan’s Senkaku islands.
Japanese coastguard cutters shadow them warily until the Chinese decide that national honour has been satisfied and sail away. 
 
Call this little dance an improvement: in 2012, with anti-Japan fervour at its height, aggressive incursions into Senkaku waters highlighted the risk that China might even provoke a war with its neighbour over the uninhabited rocks.
That the dance is carried out by coastguard vessels, white-painted and minimally armed, also allows both sides to disengage more easily. 
 
Yet gunmetal-grey warships lurk nearby.
One reason China has backed off in recent months is the solid presence of the Japanese navy just over the horizon.
And were the two countries ever to come to blows over the Senkakus, America has made it clear it would come to Japan’s aid. (It claims no view over the territorial dispute, which did not stop it using the Senkakus for bombing practice during its post-war occupation of Japan.)
Facing pushback in the East China Sea, China has turned to softer targets: the islands, reefs and atolls of the South China Sea. 
 
These have long been the subject of territorial disputes among littoral states, especially involving the Philippines and Vietnam.
But China has increased the tensions sharply in the past year. 
 
First, without consultation it towed an oil rig into Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
More troubling is confirmation of China’s massive landfill work on disputed reefs and islands a very long way from China’s shores. 
 
In contrast with Japan, China’s neighbours to the south are poorer and weaker, and they lack cast-iron American security guarantees.
A vacuum has existed in the South China Sea since American forces withdrew from the Philippines in 1992.

Game of shadows
China’s neighbours are unnerved by its rapid increase in defence spending, in particular its pursuit of a blue-water navy.
They note a Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who is not shy about flexing Chinese muscle.
He likes to talk of China’s “peaceful rise” and of a “new type of great-power relationship”—one that appears to leave little space for small countries.
 
In both Beijing and Washington, strategists have long liked to grapple with whether America and China are destined to fall into a “Thucydides trap”. 
 
In the original, the Spartans’ fear of the growing might of Athens made war inevitable. 
 
The modern parallel states that an existing power (America) is bound to clash with a rising one (China).
In Japan the point is made differently: at sea modern China is behaving with the paranoid aggression of imperial Japan on land before the second world war.
“They are making the same mistakes that we did,” says a Japanese official.
 
For now, it is a game of diplomacy, legal manoeuvre, positioning and the creation of facts on the ground (or, rather, on the water).
It is played mainly by non-military forces: dredgers and barges; oceanographic and other survey ships; and, above all, coastguards. 
 
China insists that its landfill work is intended to provide public goods such as lighthouses, typhoon shelters for fishermen, weather stations and search-and-rescue facilities.
But American defence officials are certain the purpose is, in fact, military. 
 
At Fiery Cross reef a new airstrip 3km (1.9 miles) long could take any of China’s military aircraft, and what look like hangars for fighters are being built.
Artillery has been seen at another outpost.
American planners say that these positions are vulnerable—“aircraft carriers that can’t move”, as one puts it—and would quickly be put out of action in any conflict.
But short of war the artificial islands would serve as useful forward bases to project Chinese power.
 
China claims an ill-defined U-shape, the “nine-dashed line”, that encloses much of the South China Sea (see map) and clashes with the claims of several of its neighbours.
Again, America affects to take no position on who owns what.
Its priority, it says, is to preserve the right of free navigation by both air and sea. 
 
It periodically sends military reconnaissance aircraft near the newly built islands to make this point.
 

China is not the first country to build in the South China Sea, but it is now by far the most energetic. By shredding trust with South-East Asian claimants, China’s actions make a long-promised code of conduct for dealing with territorial disputes ever more elusive. 
 
Its assertiveness has pushed several South-East Asian countries closer to America, lending justification for the American “pivot” to Asia.
 
Countries alarmed at Chinese assertiveness have rushed to buy military equipment.
In the face of strong domestic opposition, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is pushing new security bills through parliament that would loosen the constraints on Japan helping its American ally.
He would, for instance, like Japan to join the American navy in South China Sea patrols. 
 
Japan is also financing the construction of ten new coastguard vessels for the Philippines and six for Vietnam.
It is all part of a concerted “anti-coercion strategy”, says Narushige Michishita of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
 
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s relations with America go from strength to strength (while it increases arms purchases from Russia). 
 
The Philippines has signed a new defence pact that would allow America to return to its former base in Subic Bay as well as other bases.
And it plans to beef up its neglected armed forces.
The shopping list includes new fighters, frigates and maritime reconnaissance aircraft. 
 
But, given the scale of the country’s corruption, some wonder how much of a punch the extra pesos will deliver.
Many are now closely watching the proceedings of a UN-sponsored arbitration panel at The Hague, where the Philippines is seeking a ruling on whether China’s building on submerged reefs confers the right to territorial waters and EEZs under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 
 
The panel cannot settle the question of ownership, but the Philippines is hoping for a moral victory that will undermine China’s vague but sweeping claims.
China has refused to take part in the process, but is being drawn willy-nilly into the legal argument.

One China, one claim
At the junction of the East China Sea and the South China Sea lies Taiwan, which China claims. Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have greatly eased in recent years, as the Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, and his Kuomintang (KMT) have sought reconciliation with the mainland Communists. But a test of relations is on the horizon with a presidential election that is likely to see Mr Ma replaced by Tsai Ing-wen of the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). She has tried to assuage American worries of cross-strait crisis by speaking of her desire to maintain stable, predictable relations with the mainland.
But China does not trust her party.
Besides, the South China Sea disputes have the potential to become a new bone of contention between Taiwan and China. 
 
Taiwan shares identical claims to China’s in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Indeed the nine-dashed line was first drawn up by the KMT in 1946 (it had 11 dashes then) when it still ruled China and set out to retake islands following Japan’s surrender.
Identical claims actually suit China, since they reinforce the pretence that there is just “one China” (with China and Taiwan disagreeing over precisely what it is).
But America recently pressured Mr Ma to clarify Taiwan’s claim as a means of undermining the absurdly sweeping nature of China’s.
Mr Ma, a Harvard-trained lawyer who is keen that his country is seen to be upholding international law, said that under UNCLOS Taiwan claims only the 12-mile limit around its islands, not all the seas within the nine-dashed line.
A DPP government might adopt a still narrower position.
Ms Tsai insists that Taiwan will defend Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys, which it holds, but is vaguer about other features.
 
Diplomatic nuance will not change the inexorable shift that is taking place in Asia’s balance of power.
Military experts offer the following rough reckoning: Taiwan lost the ability to halt a Chinese invasion on its own several years ago; Japan may be able to keep protecting its farthest-flung islands only for another 10-15 years.
So the longer-term questions are: can either country inflict enough damage on China to deter it from attacking and, more importantly, how far is America still willing or able to tip the scales? 
 
Two decades after a cross-strait crisis in which China fired missiles close to Taiwan, would America again deploy aircraft-carriers nearby as a warning?
Few offer an unqualified “yes”.
Military thinking is changing markedly.
America is seeking new weapons to try to break through China’s growing “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) capability.
This involves, for example, anti-ship missiles designed to hold back the Americans, perhaps at the “first island chain” (which runs from Japan to Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia). 
 
Such is the mismatch that neighbours are now planning their own A2/AD strategies to fend off China.
 
Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College thinks that Japan should focus on things like shore-based anti-ship missiles, submarines, “guerrilla warfare at sea” with fast missile boats and mine warfare.
America is quietly pushing Taiwan to adopt similar tactics.
And Japanese officials privately admit that Taiwan’s security is essential to Japan’s. 
 
Andrew Krepinevich of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think-tank in Washington, DC, suggests that America should help extend what he calls “archipelagic defence” to the Philippines.

If you can’t beat them, contain them
Such advice may be a counsel of despair, an admission that the East China Sea and South China Sea are bound to become Chinese lakes, and that the best that can be done is to contain China within them.
 
Nobody wants to test such notions, not least because of the risk tensions pose to global prosperity. The aim in the coming years must be to draw a rising China into co-operative relationships with its neighbours, while deterring bad behaviour.
 
China is hardly without internal problems, or indifferent to external pressure.
Some experts in Beijing think their country has been too assertive at sea of late.
China has said its land reclamation in the South China Sea is coming to an end.
Xi will want to avoid too many controversies ahead of his visit to America in September.
 
For now, whether competition in Asia can be prevented from turning into conflict may come down to whether the crews on lightly armed coastguard ships in the waters around China can keep their heads.