China’s new territorial assertiveness

As China boosts its naval prowess, it has become more comfortable with pursuing its territorial ambitions.

Xi Jinping says China does not subscribe to the notion that a country is bound to seek hegemony when it grows in strength [Getty Images]

US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Asia was primarily aimed at calming the brewing territorial conflicts in Asia, which have undermined decades of promising diplomatic relations between China on one hand, and the US’ Asian allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, on the other. Quite paradoxically, Obama’s visit seems to have instead provoked greater maritime assertiveness on the part of China, which has stubbornly opposed any regional and international criticism of its territorial posturing in recent years.

Leaving little doubt as to the full extent of its territorial claims in the Western Pacific, and its commitment to defend what is considers as its “blue national soil”, China has gone so far as releasing a new map, which controversially places equal emphasis on the country’s land-based as well as maritime boundaries.

While China has managed to consolidate much of its territorial claims in the Asian landmass, which are largely based on the historical limits of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the bulk of its maritime claims, mainly based on the purported historical jurisdiction of the Song and Ming dynasties in the Middle Ages, overlap with the 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic  Zone (EEZ) of neighbouring states.

Unsurprisingly, China’s latest move was met with widespread criticism from neighbouring countries, which also lay claim to many contested features in the South China Sea. The move complements Beijing’s late-2012 decision to release new passports, which contained a Chinese map covering a whole host of contested territories across the Asian continent, ranging from the disputed Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh on the China-Indian border to tourist destinations in Taiwan and almost the entirety of the South China Sea.

Although China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLO), it has increasingly placed its historical claims above modern international law, arguing that much of the principles of the current global order, primarily drafted by the western powers, have not fairly reflected Beijing’s “inherent” and “indisputable” territorial claims rooted in the country’s ancient history.

As China rapidly builds up its naval capabilities, it has also expanded its reclamation activities across the South China Sea, turning rudimentary features into potential military garrisons and airstrips, which would be central to any sustained Chinese military operation in the area. Such efforts have also been supported by the dispatch of several state-of-the-art oil rigs across the area, solidifying China’s claim over the hydrocarbon riches of the South China Sea. Thus, one could argue that China has entered a new stage of territorial brinkmanship, equipped with ever-greater capabilities.

Clash of titans

Cognisant of growing regional anxieties over China’s recent behaviour in adjacent waters, Chinese President Xi Jinping pre-empted his country’s critics by recently claiming: “China does not subscribe to the notion that a country is bound to seek hegemony when it grows in strength.” 

From the perspective of the Chinese leadership, however, the true hegemonic power is the US, aided by powerful regional allies such as Japan, which continues to rouse anger among Chinese people, who believe Tokyo has not fully repented for its World War II atrocities.

101 East – Reef madness

The true source of tensions in the region, the Chinese leaders argue, stems from the aggressive attempt of western powers and their regional allies to contain China’s quest to restore its historical status as the pre-eminent power in Asia. Following this line of argumentation, China need not necessarily follow the UNCLOS, precisely because the existing liberal international order, no matter how beneficial to China, especially in the realm of trade and investment, primarily reflects the preferences and values of western powers, ignoring China’s “inherent” rights.

For Beijing authorities, China has the right to fight for its historical rights to reverse the country’s Century of Humiliation during the colonial expansion of western powers and Japan in the 19th and early-20th century, and regain its lost prestige and territorial integrity. Through such a world view, China has developed a distinct form of popular nationalism, which links the country’s quest to correct the mistakes of the past with an inexorable march towards regional ascendancy. No wonder, Xi has tried to cement his legitimacy as the undisputable paramount leader of China by evoking the slogan China Dream, which reflects Beijing’s eagerness to be treated as Asia’s leader, and the US’ sole global peer in the 21st century.

For Washington and its allies, however, such rhetoric smacks of an ideological justification for China’s revisionist ambitions in the region. Even the ever-neutral Singapore has been rattled by China, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong implicitly lamenting China’s “might is right” approach to settling the disputes in the South China Sea.  Filipino legal experts such as Antonio Carpio have countered Beijing’s claims by arguing that even China’s own ancient maps fall short of establishing unambiguous Chinese jurisdiction over and claim to the bulk of the South China Sea. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has repeatedly made it clear that it opposes any action, which may undermine freedom of navigation (FoN) in international waters.

Scramble for stability

Unimpeded access to critical waterways such as the South China Sea is not only central to US naval ascendancy, but it is also the foundation of robust regional trade and economic integration. With a growing proportion of US investment and exports concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region, Washington can’t afford to allow China to unilaterally alter the maritime order in the Western Pacific.

The problem, however, is that China has become a pivotal economic partner for the US, while the majority of the Americans have become increasingly opposed to foreign interventions and war. With China’s economic influence eclipsing the US in Asia, Japan has rapidly emerged as a potential counterweight to China.

Unfazed by Japan’s restrictive constitution, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed for a maximalist re-interpretation of the pacifist provisions of the country’s charter. Under the doctrine of Collective Self-Defence, Tokyo hopes to pave the way for the Japanese Self Defence Forces (JSDF) to play a direct role in stabilising international waters, such as the South China Sea, as well as aid treaty allies in times of conflict.

The Abe administration has also pushed ahead with an ambitious series of economic reforms to resuscitate Japan’s economy, allowing the country to support rising military spending and provide greater strategic assistance to neighbouring countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. During his recent meeting with Abe, the Philippine President Beningo Aquino enthusiastically endorsed Japan’s bid for a greater military role in the region, thanking Japan for its extensive economic and humanitarian assistanceto the Philippines.

Across Asia, however, there are still lingering concerns over the Abe administration’s revisionist views on Japan’s militarist past. And the US seems to be more eager on engaging rather than confronting China. Southeast Asian countries, meanwhile, are still struggling to forge a unified position on the South China Sea disputes.

As a result, China has pursued its territorial claims more confidently, hoping that by progressively creating facts on the ground, it will eventually manage to cajole the world into accepting its historical claims, and ultimately its bid for regional ascendancy.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical and economic affairs, and author of How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.

Follow him on Twitter: @Richeydarian