China is setting up shop on a tiny island in the South China Sea, deploying troops and civilian administrators in a move that is raising tensions in the region and seriously annoying Vietnam and the Philippines.
The move comes on the heels of a conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) earlier this month that couldn’t agree on a Code of Conduct to deal with conflicting territorial claims on islands in the region.
China’s new military garrison is on a 2.5 square kilometer patch of land it calls Yongxing in the Paracel Islands chain. According to Ziao Jie, China’s newly appointed mayor of the island’s capital region, Sansha City, the new settlement is meant to “safeguard national sovereignty and security, to strengthen the protection of resources and overall development in the South China Sea.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III doesn’t like that at all. He doesn’t recognize Sansha’s founding and has announced plans to buy attack helicopters.
“If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” President Aquino asked the Philippines parliament.
Vietnam is equally annoyed. Officials in Hanoi rolled out what they say is a 1904 Qing Dynasty map that makes no claims to sovereignty over the Paracels or the Spratley Islands to the south.
“The Vietnamese are a special race,” museum historian Mai Ngoc Hong told reporters. “We are like a hard constrained spring. Use force on it and it will coil, and watch out when it does.”
Vietnam and the Philippines are the loudest opponents of the new Chinese settlement because Beijing’s Marine Surveillance forces use the island to patrol waters Hanoi and Manila claim as their own.
ASEAN’s diplomatic balance
But what about other ASEAN members, especially those whose economies benefit from hefty Chinese investments?
At the Washington-based Cato Institute, Foreign Policy Studies director Justin Logan says China’s new Sansha settlement could change the diplomatic equation in ASEAN. According to Logan, making territorial pronouncements is one thing; deploying troops and civilian administrators is something entirely different.
“I think that China may be overplaying its hand here,” Logan says. “There are certain countries, obviously Cambodia, and other countries in the region and in ASEAN that have been more or less willing, for a variety of different reasons, to be supportive of China in this context.”
“And I think that this could really put pressure on them to say: ‘Look, we can’t back you up on this. Maybe we will just sort of sit this out or we won’t make a statement on it at all.’ But the idea that they are going to have a diplomatic coalition of the willing saying that this is alright I think becomes really tough to do.”
Cambodia helped scuttle regional unanimity over a Code of Conduct at the ASEAN foreign ministerial in Phnom Penh, contributing to what the International Crisis Group calls a weakness of the multilateral framework that “has also proven ineffective in reducing tensions.”
“Divisions between member states, stemming from different perspectives on the South China Sea and differences in the value each member places on their relations with China, have prevented ASEAN from coming to a consensus on the issue,” the ICG says. “China has worked actively to exploit these divisions, offering preferential treatment to ASEAN members that do not side with its rival claimants.”
But Cambodia sees things differently, insisting that it remains an honest broker.
“Cambodia doesn’t take sides,” Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told VOA’s Say Mony. “Cambodia is the Chair of ASEAN, and we have to make sure that situation remains calm, not to add fuel to fire.”
Stanford University’s Don Emmerson says the breadth of China’s claim over nearly all of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea appears increasingly designed to reduce the role of the U.S. Navy as part of the Obama administration’s “Asia Pivot.”
“One would even suggest that those within the People’s Liberation Army who are among the most vehement nationalists on this issue would like to see the South China Sea actually become a Chinese lake,” Emmerson says.
Cato’s Justin Logan believes Washington is going “a little bit too far into making this a U.S. vs. China competition in the South China Sea.”
“If the United States had a somewhat more distant posture and wasn’t always rushing to assure its friends and allies in the region that we would be on the hook to ensure freedom of navigation,” Logan says, “other countries in the region would be, in fact, more alarmed about China’s behavior.”
“But the idea that they see the United States at the forefront of this effort to constrain China’s ambition in the South China Sea allows them to stand back a little bit and play one side off the other.”