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China's Sovereignty Runs Deep


China claims not just the air and the sea off its coasts, but what lies underneath the water as well. In the past that has meant Beijing has laid claim to any deposits of oil and gas on the seafloor, as well as the fish in disputed waters off the coast; now it means shipwrecks belong to China too. The WSJ reports:

Underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio’s team was exploring the wreckage of a 13th-century Chinese junk off the coast of the Philippines when it made an unwelcome discovery about China’s maritime muscle in the 21st century.

As a twin-prop plane swooped overhead, a Chinese marine-surveillance vessel approached the team’s Philippines-registered ship and began broadcasting instructions in English over a loudspeaker.

“They said this area belonged to the People’s Republic of China, and they told us to scram,” recalls one of the people on board last year. “It was pretty scary.”

Vice President Biden, beginning a visit to east Asia this week, will be walking a tightrope as he attempts to put a damper on tension that exploded between China and its neighbors over China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone. On one level, this kind of harrassment is intellectual: “We want to find more evidence that can prove Chinese people went there and lived there, historical evidence that can help prove China is the sovereign owner of the South China Sea,” the head of the Chinese government’s underwater archaeology unit told the WSJ. Unfriendly archeologists may presumably not come to the same conclusions.

But on another level, this is the latest incremental step taken by Beijing to chip away at US political and military influence in China’s near-abroad. A strategy emerges: by taking small actions—setting up an ADIZ that includes disputed territory, harassing foreign vessels and planes that enter China-claimed space, poking the neighbors in the eye with provocative surveillance expeditions and training exercises—China is able to fly below the US radar, simultaneously annoying and estranging Washington and its allies, and making small incremental demonstrations of increasing Chinese regional power. It tests the Obama administration’s commitment to the “pivot” and to its Asian allies. Following PLA General Zhang Zhaozhong’s lead, you can call it a “cabbage strategy“: “assert a territorial claim and gradually surround the area with multiple layers of security, thus denying access to a rival. The strategy relies on a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground.”

The US, after perhaps giving China a small win last week by recommending to US airlines that their planes obey China’s new rules, today sent its latest message: a squadron of advanced P-8 Poseidon aircraft, dubbed “submarine hunters.” Six aircraft will be stationed at Okinawa and will patrol nearby waters. China’s reaction should be instructive.

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  • Anthony

    “China’s reaction should be instructive” especially given General Zhang’s cabbage strategy.

    • Thirdsyphon

      China’s military operates with a level of autonomy from the central government that most of China’s neighbors (and, occasionally even the Chinese central government itself) are appalled by.

      During the previous Administration, China’s generals took a similarly untethered step towards the militarization of outer space by openly testing an antisatellite weapon system. There was never a follow-up to that gesture, in part because the broader leadership in China saw no obvious benefit, and significant risk and expense, to igniting a new Cold War in space. The initiative promptly vanished, never to be seen or heard from again.

      This ADIZ nonsense strikes me as something very similar. I suspect that the PLA has been given great latitude from Beijing to pursue China’s claim over this handful of obscure and uninhabitable islands as it sees fit, but I doubt that anyone in the civilian leadership would have approved a gesture as nutty as the ADIZ had they known about it in advance. Now that the United States and Japan have shown that they have no intention of honoring it (as even the PLA should have known they would do beforehand), China will have to up its ante by taking some sort of military action to enforce the ADIZ (e.g., by sending interceptor jets to shadow Japanese civilian aircraft as they cross through it). Failing that, China’s only option is to quietly back down and stop talking about the ADIZ in any form.

      My guess is that the PLA’s leadership, left to itself, would favor a measured escalation to test the resolve of their adversaries; but that path will be rightly vetoed by the central government as too risky to pursue in light of the (nonexistent) opportunity for material gains.

      • Andrew Allison

        Alternatively, there could be very little autonomy but a Black/White Hat scenario being played out, with the PLA pushing the envelope and the Central Committee “restraining” it when politically expedient.

        • Thirdsyphon

          Possibly. In the run-up to the Iraq War, I had a theory that the U.S. and the E.U. were playing a similar game with the Hussein regime, with the U.S. playing the “bad cop.” (It’s a pity they weren’t, since it seems to have worked). In reality, this strategy never seems to really work out on a grand scale, even when it’s consciously attempted. I think the PLA is acting crazy and the central government is acting to control it because the PLA really *is* crazy and the central government really *is* trying to rein them in.
          (It’s equally implausible, though equally intriguing, that the U.S. might be running a similar con with the help of Japan).

      • Anthony

        Perhaps, I should have been more definitive: I was referring to Brahma Chellaney’s creeping China analysis; no Military/Party comparison. Thanks.

        • Thirdsyphon

          The “cabbage strategy” is real enough at sea; and Challaney describes its workings accurately. Where his analysis fails, I think, is in comparing a strategy by which civilian vessels engaged in ostensibly peaceable (and factually non-violent) conduct physically enclose an island in order to prevent any other parties from accessing it without resorting to violence themselves.

          • Anthony

            I think he was offering perspective as someone with interest in region primarily speaking/writing to China’s growing geopolitical heft from Indian perspective (while cognizant of Xi Jinping national greatness dialog). Also, sorry for late reply but I was away. For me, end of this thread thanks.

  • lukelea

    “Hide your strength, bide your time” is an old Chinese adage often repeated among the Party leadership. My question is, are we prepared for the day when China emerges as our enemy fully declared? Not just militarily, but economically? Is Chimerica a symmetrical relationship or are we more dependent on them (for hi-tech, low-wage imports) than they are on us (for what?).

    Should China break off relations with us they still have a couple of trillion dollars of foreign exchange which they are free spend on just about anything they might desire anywhere in the world. How long would it take us to adjust to not depending on things made in China?

    Just wondering about our strategic vulnerability.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Your point is well-reasoned (convenient that it also supports your broader policy goals, but anon…), but I believe that you have it backwards. Yes, China is a huge producer of goods that we need, but they are not the ONLY producer of those goods, while we are (for the most part) their only significant customer who can pay real market rates. The foreign exchange that China has typically goes right back out the door to buy raw materials (including food, a big problem for China), something that they simply cannot replace without significantly undermining the stability of their government. Yes, a sudden rupture in trade with China would be a horrible thing for us (devoutly NOT to be wished for), but it would immediately sideline scores of millions of workers in China, drain their foreign exchange (assuming for a moment the US didn’t take sterner steps and blockade China’s imports, a relatively easy step for us, and one of the reasons why they are so intensely interested in seizing a South China sea littoral by hook or by crook), and imperil the ability of the Communist party to retain control of the country. This is a danger that they dare not consider, no matter what the consequences…
      Neither side would prosper from such a conflict (the effect on the US would be devastating, as you correctly state), but we have other sources of goods, and a ton of spare manufacturing capacity, whereas the Chinese simply dare not risk a fight with their only significant customer.
      The old saying that ‘when you owe the bank a thousand dollars, the bank owns you, but when you owe the bank a million dollars, you own the bank’ strikes me as terribly apt here

      • Thirdsyphon

        Exactly. China’s economic margin for error is razor thin. China’s foreign currency reserves are held primarily in the form of U.S. dollars, which would stand to lose value dramatically in this scenario, since: a) our economy will be in freefall; and b) the Federal government, suddenly short on willing creditors and facing a level of unemployment that might well beat the worst days of the Great Depression, would have little choice but to intentionally devalue the dollar even further, by monetizing the vast spending that would be necessary to stabilize our economy (or at least stop the bleeding) and maintain social cohesion.

    • Thirdsyphon

      The gradual economic decoupling between China and the U.S. has already begun, although it owes much more to market forces than it does to conscious policymaking on either side.

      Like South Korea, the U.S. has been relying for the last couple of decades on China’s cheap, high-skilled labor pool to manufacture the high-tech devices that their companies design. As China’s economic growth has driven up the cost of Chinese labor, those jobs have started migrating. Initially, the contracts just found their way inland from the Chinese coastal Southeast; but even the Chinese interior is becoming expensive, so U.S. companies are increasingly shifting their manufacturing work to poorer countries in the region, such as Malaysia and Vietnam.

      On the Chinese side of the equation, now that they’ve mastered the skills necessary for mass, high-tech manufacturing, their only hope of ascending any further economically is to take the next step up the value-added chain and start coming up with their own designs. There is no Chinese Apple or Samsung as of yet, but Huawei would be more than happy to become one, if it can. There’s an argument to be made that only free societies can produce the kind of intellectual dynamism that fuels the Apples and Googles and Samsungs and Sonys of the world; and it may be that this argument is correct. If it turns out not to be, though, then the U.S. and the world’s other democracies will have a great deal to worry about from China.

      • Kavanna

        China is already pricing itself out of the cheap manufacturing world. And its work force has stopped growing and is starting to age, dramatically.

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