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China Raises Stakes in South China Sea

With urban warfare in Syria, a worsening financial crisis plus a stock market crash in Europe and new warnings of recession in the United States, this is a big news day, but when people look back on this day in history, they may well say the most consequential story in today’s news comes from China. As the Voice of America reports, China is dramatically stepping up in the South China Sea, moving to establish a permanent municipal government and station troops on islands bitterly disputed with Vietnam.

In a report published Sunday, China’s official Xinhua news agency says 1,100 residents of several islands known in Chinese as Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha have elected 45 deputies to a municipal people’s congress. The islands are part of the new city called Sansha, and the council will be based on an island that China refers to as Yongxing, known in English as Woody Island.

Xinhua also says China’s Central Military Commission has approved the formation of a Sansha garrison command responsible for “national defense” and “military operations.”

The new steps follow Chinese announcements that oil drilling and tourist trips are starting in the disputed area. Since 1974, when Chinese forces won a battle with Vietnam, the islands have been effectively under Chinese control. Vietnam has not given up its claims, and has protested every assertion of Chinese sovereignty over the islands and the waters around them.

China’s escalation is clearly part of its response to the new American policy in the region. It changes nothing legally and the military consequences of a small Chinese force on the islands are small.

But the move is a clear sign that China has no plans to give grounds on the dispute. This step means that China cannot abandon its position without a severe humiliation; it’s a kind of iron guarantee to hardcore nationalists that the government will not back down.

The United States for many years has been committed to the position that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea need to be settled by negotiations among the various parties concerned in a multilateral forum. China insists on bilateral negotiations with each of the countries with whom it has overlapping claims.

Nationalist opinion in China is white hot over this issue; public opinion from Korea and Japan down to the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia is also engaged. China seems to be putting down a marker: if neighboring countries push China, China will push back.

This is just part of the picture. Some reports from the region suggest that China is orchestrating a diplomatic and economic counteroffensive. The calculation seems to be that the United States, distracted by an election campaign, worried about Syria and other Middle Eastern problems, and facing the “fiscal cliff” along with defense budget cuts will be unable to make an effective response.

America’s new Pacific policy is getting its first real test. It will not the be last.

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  • Kevin

    If china really is trying to organize a diplomatic counteroffensive this seems like a poor way to go about it. Driving up nationalist sentiment in its neighbors seems like a poor way to attract friends. Trying to intimidate its neighbors only drives them into the arms of the US. It seems more likely they don’t have a coherent vision of what they intend to accomplish and how they will do it. rather I suspect various ministers and official are freelancing and doing whatever they can to appeal to domestic opinion, much of which is quite hard line. Maybe after the new leadership consolidates China will undertake a more coherent policy better matching means to ends. Until then it is somewhat like Japan in the 1930s, where different leaders pursued their own schemes.

  • Luke Lea

    Why did China and Vietnam go to war back in the late 1970’s? I can’t remember. So I looked it up in Wikipedia. Lots of basic info not irrelevant to what’s going on now:

  • Kris

    Luke@2: Since it wasn’t in tinyurl form, I followed your link and was amused by the following: “The Sino–Vietnamese War, also known as the Third Indochina War, known in the PRC as ‘Defensive Counterattack against Vietnam’ and in Vietnam as ‘War against Chinese expansionism'”.

  • ZhangLan

    “The United States for many years has been committed to the position that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea need to be settled by negotiations among the various parties concerned in a multilateral forum.”

    1. Here is the text of the current ASEAN agreement in respect of the South China Sea, which calls for BI-LATERAL resolution of disputes.

    2. Secondly, which great nation made this position statement last week? –

    “”We simply are not persuaded that decisions by the International Seabed Authority and international tribunals empowered by [the UNCLOS] treaty will be more favorable to [our national] interests than bilateral negotiations, voluntary arbitration, and other traditional means of resolving maritime issues,” the two [politicians] said in a joint statement. “No international organization owns the seas, and we are confident that our country will continue to protect its navigational freedom, valid territorial claims, and other maritime rights.”

    It wasn’t China, that’s for sure

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