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Report Says China Worsening Tensions in S. China Sea

Photographed through the window of a closed aircraft, an aerial view shows Pagasa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines Wednesday July 20, 2011.
Photographed through the window of a closed aircraft, an aerial view shows Pagasa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines Wednesday July 20, 2011.

A new report from a Brussels-based think tank says Chinese government agencies are exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea.

As relations worsen between China and its South China Sea neighbors, some analysts say Beijing governmental agencies with little experience in foreign affairs are jockeying for influence, presenting inconsistent policies across the disputed region.

The International Crisis Group (IGC) says Beijing's highlighting of historical claims to the territory is also stoking nationalist sentiments.

Stephanie Kleine Ahlbrandt, the China and Northeast Asia Policy Director for the ICG in Beijing, says the growing U.S. military presence in the area is also upsetting the balance of power among the neighboring countries.

“This raises the stakes in the entire region," says Ahlbrandt. "It’s beyond the South China Seas, in places like Myanmar, in places like India, and this profoundly disturbs China because China feels like [the region belongs to it], and they’ve responded by engaging in more military build up, which is sort of a circle whereby these countries feel more afraid and then they ask the U.S. to come in.”

The United States has long held annual military exercises with countries in the region, but escalating tensions have brought those efforts under new scrutiny.

The U.S. and Philippines held annual naval drills earlier this month, and China and Russia have begun their own joint military exercises in the region.

Two Spheres of Influence
“We have two centers: China as an economic center, the United States and her allies as a security center," says Huang Jing, director of the Center on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore. "As a result, all the countries are caught in this dilemma. Economically they have no choice but to go with China because China has become the largest trade partner to every country in this region -- even Japan and South Korea who are American allies. On the other hand, they know that the United States still holds supreme power in terms of military capability.”

Asian countries have been buying arms at a record pace in recent years, causing some to worry about a military buildup. But so far, confrontations have mainly involved civilian vessels and fishing fleets.

Overcrowded Fishing Grounds
According to Ahlbrandt, civilian vessels and fishing fleets are easier to deploy, making confrontations and skirmishes among the vessels more common.

“So what you have is kind of a quasi Coast Guard arms race going on, and that’s dangerous because navies are generally more threatening but harder to deploy,” she says.

Thousands of fishermen earn their livelihoods on the South China Sea, but because of overfishing, pollution, and the race to feed Asia’s growing populations, fishermen are increasingly pushing farther out from coastal areas and into internationally disputed waters.

While China’s growing economic and military power may lead it to stake out territorial claims, Ahlbrandt says other countries, such as Vietnam, are also showing increased commercial and territorial assertiveness in the region.

“I think it should also be noted that China’s behavior in the South China Seas is largely reactionary because other claimants, [who] are driven by similar factors, are also stepping up their territorial claims and economic activities in disputed waters,” she says.

Need for Compromise
South China Sea countries have tried to resolve disputes via arbitration, and agreeing on a regional code of conduct has long been a goal of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But efforts have largely been fruitless.

“Any negotiation over territorial issues will have to involve compromise," says Ahlbrandt. "It’s just that these actors, including the Philippines and Vietnam, will have a difficult time explaining to their public -- who have been imbued for decadees with some of the sense that some of these maritime areas are theirs -- that the government has to compromise on these things.”

This month China and the Philippines are engaged in a standoff near Scarborough Shoal -- an area both claim as their own. One Chinese newspaper has warned of small scale war over the waterway, but Huang says this tough talk is driven by China’s domestic political dynamics.

“As China is getting into this leadership transition period, all of the ruling elite members are geared up for this transition," he says. "So as a result, few of them can afford to appear soft in terms of national interests such as in the South China seas."

With China's National Party Congress schedule for this fall, harsh rhetoric and aggressive comments over the region are likely to continue.