12 April 2013

March: China’s Month of Mistakes

Gabriel B. Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “March: China’s Month of Mistakes,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 12 April 2013.

March was a tough month for China’s foreign policymakers, with four high-profile foreign policy fumbles, two of which significantly helped to raise the risk of tension and crisis in East Asia. While all but one of these incidents apparently stemmed from deliberate actions approved by Chinese decision-makers at some level, and hence do not constitute errors in execution per se, the negative repercussions they engender may ultimately come back to harm China’s own interests.

At the recently concluded Bo’ao Forum on the southern island province of Hainan, President Xi Jinping was eager to position China as a force for peace in the region.

“For Asia, development is still the top question, development is still crucial for solving many problems and conflicts,” he told attendees. “Without peace, there is no need to talk about development.” Yet China’s actions in March suggest that in pursuing its aims Beijing is all too willing to act at odds with these welcome words.

China has couched its more assertive stance in the region in terms of a natural desire to protect its national interests. All nations pursue their own interests, and one would expect China to desire to project its growing power in service of that goal. The real issue is whether China can project its power in ways that are compatible enough with the interests of others to reduce the potential for outright conflict.

The most serious threat to regional stability at present is North Korea’s latest ramping up of provocations—a process that Beijing abetted in early March by perpetuating the false notion that all parties bear equal responsibility for the situation. Encouraged by the knowledge that Beijing is unwilling to abandon it, Pyongyang lashed out at the sanctions imposed by the United Nations after its February nuclear test, spewing threat after bellicose threat.

Although China joined the U.S. in supporting the U.N. sanctions, it remained meek in the face of North Korean saber rattling. Beijing worries that by removing its support for Pyongyang, it risks hastening regime collapse in North Korea and reunification of the Korean peninsula under non-Chinese terms. Those concerns are understandable. But by aiding and abetting a bad actor that so flagrantly defies international norms and threatens regional stability, while simultaneously suggesting that the problem lies with others, China put its parochial interests above the regional peace and development that it publicly champions.

A similar disregard for others’ interests was in evidence in an incident on March 20, when Chinese patrol boats confronted a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands. According to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, two Chinese patrol vessels (hulls 262 and 263 from China Marine Surveillance) chased and fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat named QNg96382, causing a fire that destroyed the boat’s cabin. Chinese reporting on the incident acknowledged that the Chinese vessels had fired, but called the discharges “warning shots.”

The official PLA Daily said another patrol vessel, China Marine Surveillance 786, fired two red flares into the air to warn four Vietnamese fishing vessels to leave waters around the islands. While it remains unclear precisely who did what, photos showing China Marine Surveillance 786 with a cloud of smoke near it and a Vietnamese boat with a burned-out cabin that looks very much like earlier photos of an intact QNg96382 suggest that Chinese boats did indeed set the Vietnamese boat on fire, whether they intended to or not.

Previously reported incidents, such as the cutting by Chinese vessels of a Vietnamese oil exploration vessel’s cables in 2012, make this appear to be part of a larger pattern of Chinese pressure and raise questions about China’s willingness to err on the side of threatening and using force in pushing its claims in disputed waters. The incident also raises questions about how much control China’s State Oceanic Administration has over vessel captains operating under the paramilitary Marine Surveillance agency.

In projecting power around the region, China has demonstrated a certain degree of hypocrisy. This became evident on March 22, two days after the confrontation near the Paracels, when a 4-vessel PLA Navy flotilla led by the amphibious landing ship Jinggangshan moved into waters near the disputed James Shoal—only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Malaysia —and began a combined arms amphibious exercise.

The flotilla left the South China Sea on a week later and headed through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines to enter the Western Pacific for additional training. The PLAN’s maneuver and an accompanying ceremony near the shoal, during which Chinese sailors swore to uphold China’s territorial integrity and defend its South China Sea interests, no doubt caused consternation in regional capitals, particularly Kuala Lumpur, which has so far made little noise about China’s assertiveness in the area.

While the exercises did not violate international law, they did violate an unofficial standard China has maintained in confronting U.S. reconnaissance missions off its own shores.

When a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with a U.S. EP-3 aircraft in 2001, sparking a diplomatic crisis, the U.S. plane was approximately 70 miles (110 km) from Hainan Island and 100 miles from Chinese facilities in the Paracel Islands.

At the time of its 2009 surrounding and harassment by five Chinese government-controlled vessels, U.S. survey ship USNS Impeccable was roughly 75 miles south of Hainan. China’s opposition to U.S. actions yet willingness to engage in military maneuvers near smaller neighbors like Malaysia evokes the double standard expressed in a Chinese proverb: “Magistrates may set fires but commoners may not even light lamps.”

Finally, with North Korean provocations fully in play, a state-owned Chinese oil tanker was caught loading crude in Iran, another pariah state that enjoys substantial Chinese support. Vessel tracking data indicated that the supertanker Yuan Yang Hu, owned by China Ocean Shipping (COSCO), loaded oil at Iran’s Kharg Island on March 21 in violation of an U.S.-EU embargo. COSCO is a strategic state-owned enterprise whose vessels are tracked both by commercial services and by the China Ship Reporting system (CHISREP), meaning there is little chance for a mistake here. The best explanation we can think of at this point for a Chinese company to risk openly flouting the embargo is that the Iranians are selling some cargoes at significant discounts in order to attract buyers.

China Real Time Report analyzed the potential for Iran to market crude oil in this mannerback in January 2012 when the issue was coming to the fore, and it appears the Iranians may be testing the waters to see what types of sweeteners are needed to bring buyers back into the market. Such Chinese activities help Iran evade sanctions imposed to curb Tehran’s defiance of international norms.

Chinese actions in March have helped to set the stage for a contentious ASEAN summit, slated to kick off on April 24 in Brunei—only 250 km from James Shoal. In the meantime, ongoing tension on the North Korean peninsula presents Beijing with an opportunity to prove that it can be a responsible stakeholder in the region. Indeed, as the serious of the situation became more apparent in the latter half of March, China began stepping up the pressure on Pyongyang.

China, its neighbors, and rest of the world would all benefit if Beijing were to match its lofty rhetoric on regional peace with positive deeds and clear messages to irresponsible actors. This includes holding itself to the same standards of restraint that it demands of others. Yet the reality is that frictions between Beijing and its neighbors and Washington are likely to increase, powered in part by a post-2008 notion that China’s power is waxing as the U.S.’s wanes.

The world should expect China to pursue its national interests in an increasingly forthright fashion as its military power and capabilities rise towards a level more commensurate with its already substantial global economic and security interests.

In some areas, such as the fight against Somali pirates, increased Chinese activity will be beneficial. But with regard to island and maritime disputes in particular, friction and disputes are likely to intensify. China’s tectonic boundaries with Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam in the South China Sea will remain among Asia’s most volatile flashpoints for the foreseeable future.

Nobody expects China not to pursue its own interests, but all will be watching to see to what extent it does so in a way that respects others’ needs and concerns.