china, assertiveness, and the south china sea -- 10/5/21

Today's selection -- from The New Map by Daniel Yergin. China has become increasingly assertive in its disputed contention with the U.S. and other countries that it has sovereignty over the South China Sea:

"China’s ruler Xi Jinping [has] evoked a 'mighty east wind' that would carry China forward. And, with a message that he said was aimed at those 'who are accustomed to threatening others,' and clearly referring to the South China Sea, he declared, 'It is absolutely impossible to separate a single inch of terri­tory of our great country.' That determination would be backed up, he said, by a continued military buildup aimed at a 'world-class armed forces' and what he called a 'modern combat system with distinctive Chinese characteristics.'

"Incidents and near collisions continue in the South China Sea between Chinese ships and American navy vessels making 'freedom of navigation patrols,' including in October 2019, when a Chinese destroyer came within forty-five yards of an American destroyer, forc­ing it to 'jam on the brakes.' Other nations -- Japan, Australia, and Europeans -- are conducting similar patrols through those waters. The dangerous game of maps also occurs in the airspace above the South China Sea. In one instance, two Chinese jets came within fifty feet of an American aircraft. In another, the radio crackled on a U.S. surveil­lance plane flying over the Spratly Islands (which the Chinese call the Nansha Islands) with six different warnings.

"'U.S. military aircraft,' said the Chinese military. 'China has sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and adjacent waters. Leave imme­diately and keep off to avoid any misunderstanding.'

"'This is a sovereign immune United States naval aircraft conducting lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state,' replied an American airman, reading from a carefully worded card. 'In exercising the rights guaranteed by international law, I am op­erating with due regard for the rights of and duties of all states.'

"Shortly after, the Chinese news outlet Global Times issued 'a thumbs-up' to Chinese airmen for defending Chinese territory.

"In response to the growing competition, the United States intro­duced its own new map for the entire region -- what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the 'map of the Indo-Pacific,' which firmly places India in the region as a major counterbalance to China. 'Make no mis­take,' said Pompeo, 'the Indo-Pacific, which stretches from the United States west coast to the west coast of India, is a region of great impor­tance to American foreign policy' and 'a big part of America's interna­tional economic future.' The United States, he added, 'will oppose any country' that seeks 'domination in the Indo-Pacific.'

"Backing this up, the 2019 U.S. defense budget identified what it called China's 'military and coercive activities' in the South China Sea as one of the Pentagon's top priorities and reasons for increased mili­tary spending. …

"Some measures could reduce the risks in the South China Sea. The ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries and China are negotiating a code of conduct to re­duce tensions in the region. But one of the sticking points is the Chi­nese proposal that would give it a veto over other countries conducting military exercises with the United States.

"A much stronger military-to-military dialogue and greater trans­parency about programs could help to mitigate the growing 'strate­gic mistrust' and the uncertainty about the critical but often murky question of intentions. A step was taken in that direction with two confidence-building measures. In 2014, the United States and China agreed to alert each other to major military exercises in the region and adopted 'rules of behavior' for managing naval and air force encoun­ters. Tempering the passions of populist nationalism in the countries bordering the sea would give governments more flexibility to resolve differences. Clarification on the treatment of 'land features' and their 'rights' in the adjacent waters of these 'features' would be important. Another issue, one of the most vexing, is an understanding of the legal status of the exclusive economic zones.

"Or perhaps the best that can be hoped for -- as a play on the 'MAD' (mutually assured destruction) of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff in the Cold War years -- may be 'MAA,' 'mutually assured ambiguity.' But seeking to address issues in a multilateral framework, with a crit­ical role for ASEAN, would help modulate the conviction that the South China Sea is fundamentally a standoff between China and the United States."



Daniel Yergin


The New Map


Penguin Press


Copyright 2020 by Daniel Yergin


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