As a dispatch by Reuters points out, the state of play in Asia is a little grimmer today; the Chinese military is warning that recent US policy moves could lead to war. An article published in the Liberation Army Daily, the mouthpiece of the China’s powerful army, wrote that
“Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force…”
The article goes on to denounce the US-Philippine naval exercises in the South China Sea and warns the US against further “meddling” in the region:
Through this kind of meddling and intervention, the United States will only stir up the entire South China Sea situation towards increasing chaos, and this will inevitably have a massive impact on regional peace and stability.
Another article in the same newspaper covers China’s response to the Philippine detention of Chinese fishing boats found near a disputed island. The Yuzheng-310, described as “the most advanced ship” in China’s fishery protection force has arrived off the disputed island and will begin regular patrols of the area. The ship has the ability to carry helicopters and is operated by the South China Sea Fishery Bureau which is part of the Ministry of Agriculture.In the past, this bureau has sometimes been responsible for actions that China’s neighbors have seen as extremely provocative in the long running disputes between China and other countries in the area. Western diplomats in China have expressed concern that at times this bureau seems to take actions that have serious international repercussions on its own, consulting at most with the Ministry of Defense and without prior approval or even knowledge of senior government officials — including those in the Foreign Ministry. Some China watchers go so far as to compare these actions to those of the Japanese armed forces in the years before World War Two, when the military took actions in Asia designed to force the hands of civilian policymakers back in Tokyo.The strong emotional response of Chinese nationalist opinion to clashes in the South China Sea can create serious problems for those Chinese policymakers who think the country’s interests are best served by avoiding polarizing conflicts with the neighbors. Fear of China caused by these incidents has led virtually all of China’s neighbors, from Korea to Vietnam and beyond, to welcome stepped up US diplomatic and military engagement in the region.Coming at a time when Chinese civil-military relations are under intense scrutiny (ousted Chongqing leader Bo Xilai enjoyed great popularity in military circles), signs that the military wants to push back against the recent upsurge in US regional activism are more significant than usual. The Chinese military has supported civilian authorities in their crackdown on Bo Xilai; it is much more concerned about the direction of Chinese foreign policy and remains deeply committed to the defense of what it sees as China’s legitimate and vital territorial claims in the waters offshore.Those claims directly conflict not only with the territorial claims of important US allies; they clash with the US commitment to free navigation of sea lanes that play a vital role in international commerce. From the time of the Quasi-War with France, the conflict with the Barbary Pirates and the War of 1812, freedom of the seas has been the issue that most frequently drawn the US into international conflicts.The situation in the South China Sea gets less media attention than, say, the dramatic shenanigans of North Korea, but the maritime competition in the south is more deeply dangerous than the rogue dictator in the north — and it is in the South China Sea much more than on the Korean peninsula that the greatest risk exists of a US-China clash.