China's Military Moment

A window of opportunity is closing in the South China Sea. Will Beijing strike?

Read more about the 5 flashpoints of the South China sea here. 

Beguiled by undersea oil and gas deposits and the weakness of fellow claimants to the Paracel Islands, China launched a naval offensive to seize the disputed archipelago. To justify its actions, Beijing pointed to history -- notably Ming Dynasty Adm. Zheng He's visits to the islands in the 15th century -- while touting its "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea.

Chinese vessels carrying amphibious troops and operating under fighter cover from nearby Hainan Island engaged a South Vietnamese flotilla bereft of air support. One Vietnamese destroyer escort lay at the bottom of the South China Sea following the daylong battle. China's flag fluttered over the islands.

The skirmish was real -- and the date was Jan. 17, 1974.

History may not repeat itself exactly, but it sure rhymes. Back then, China exploited South Vietnamese weakness to seize the Paracels. Now, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has announced plans to station a military garrison at Sansha, a newly founded city on the 0.8 square-mile Woody Island in the Paracels. Formally established on July 24, Sansha will act as China's administrative center for the Paracel and Spratly islands and adjoining waters.

This is the latest move in China's campaign to consolidate its claim to all waters and islands within a "nine-dashed line" that encloses most of the South China Sea, including large swaths of Southeast Asian countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZs). This month, a Chinese frigate ran aground in the Philippine EEZ after reportedly shooing away Filipino fishermen. That incident came on the heels of a late June announcement that PLA Navy units would commence "combat-ready patrols" of contested waters.

Beijing is reaching for its weapons once again. Unlike in 1974, however, Chinese leaders are doing so at a time when peacetime diplomacy seemingly offers them a good chance to prevail without fighting. I call it "small-stick diplomacy" -- gunboat diplomacy with no overt display of gunboats.

Chinese strategists take an extraordinarily broad view of sea power -- one that includes nonmilitary shipping. In 1974, propagandists portrayed the "Defensive War for the Paracels" (as the conflict is known in Chinese) as the triumph of a "people's navy," lavishly praising the fishermen who had acted as a naval auxiliary. Fishing fleets can go places and do things to which rivals must respond or surrender their claims by default. Unarmed ships from coast-guard-like agencies constitute the next level. And the PLA Navy fleet backed by shore-based tactical aircraft, missiles, missile-armed attack boats, and submarines represents the ultimate backstop.

Beijing can solidify its hold within the nine-dashed line by dispatching surveillance, fisheries, or law-enforcement ships to protect Chinese fishermen in disputed waters, stare down rival claimants, and uphold Chinese domestic law. And it can do so without overtly bullying weaker neighbors, giving extraregional powers a pretext to intervene, or squandering its international standing amid the anguish and sheer messiness of armed conflict. Why jettison a strategy that holds such promise?

Because small-stick diplomacy takes time. It involves creating facts on the ground -- like Sansha -- and convincing others it's pointless to challenge those facts. Beijing has the motives, means, and opportunity to resolve the South China Sea disputes on its terms, but it may view the opportunity as a fleeting one. Rival claimants like Vietnam are arming. They may acquire military means sufficient to defy China's threats, or at least drive up the costs to China of imposing its will. And Southeast Asians are seeking help from powerful outsiders like the United States. Although Washington takes no official stance on the maritime disputes, it is naturally sympathetic to countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Some, like the Philippines, are treaty allies, while successive U.S. administrations have courted friendly ties with Vietnam.

Chinese leaders thus may believe they must act now or forever lose the opportunity to cement their control of virtually the entire South China Sea. More direct methods may look like the least bad course of action -- whatever the costs, hazards, and diplomatic blowback they may entail in the short run.

China's motives have remained remarkably constant over the decades. Indeed, the map on which the nine-dashed line is inscribed is an artifact from the 1940s, not something dreamed up in recent years. Chiang Kai-shek's government published it before fleeing to Taiwan, and the Chinese communist regime embraced it.

Now as then, the map visually expresses China's interests and aspirations. Oil and natural gas deposits thought to lie in the seabed obsessed maritime proponents -- most notably Deng Xiaoping, the father of China's economic reform and opening project. Fuel and other raw materials remain crucial to China's national development project three decades after Deng launched it.

The motive of averting superpower encirclement has also influenced Chinese strategy. By the late 1970s, Deng had come to believe that the Soviet Union was pursuing a "dumbbell strategy" designed to entrench the Soviet navy as the dominant force in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. The Strait of Malacca was the bar connecting the two theaters. To join them, Moscow had negotiated basing rights in united Vietnam, at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang. Beijing believed it had to forestall a Soviet-Vietnamese alliance. Indeed, the PLA undertook a cross-border assault into Vietnam in 1979 in large part to discredit Moscow as Hanoi's defender.

Beijing may view the 2007 U.S. maritime strategy -- the official U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard statement on how the sea services see the strategic environment and intend to manage it -- as a throwback to Moscow's dumbbell strategy, predicated as it is on preserving and extending American primacy in the Western Pacific and the greater Indian Ocean. Chinese strategists fret continually about American encirclement, especially as the United States "pivots" to Asia. For China, it seems, everything old is new again.

Nor should we overlook honor as a motive animating Beijing's actions. Recouping China's honor and dignity after a "century of humiliation" at the hands of seaborne conquerors was a prime mover for Chinese actions in 1974 and 1979. It remains so today. The China seas constitute part of what the Chinese regard as their country's historical periphery. China must make itself preeminent in these expanses.

Expectations are sky-high among the Chinese populace. Having regularly described their maritime territorial claims as a matter of indisputable sovereignty, having staked their own and the country's reputation on wresting away control of contested expanses, and having roused popular sentiment with visions of seafaring grandeur, Chinese leaders will walk back their claims at their peril. They must deliver -- one way or another.

And they have the means to do so. China has amassed overpowering naval and military superiority over any individual Southeast Asian competitor. The Philippines possesses no air force to speak of, while retired U.S. Coast Guard cutters are its strongest combatant ships. Vietnam, by contrast, shares a border with China and fields a formidable army. Last year, Hanoi announced plans to buttress its naval might by purchasing six Russian-built Kilo­-class diesel submarines armed with wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. A Kilo squadron will supply Vietnam's navy a potent "sea-denial" option. But Russia has not yet delivered the subs, meaning that Hanoi can mount only feeble resistance to any Chinese naval offensive. That's still more reason for China to lock in its gains now, before Southeast Asian rivals start pushing back effectively.

So a window of opportunity remains open for Beijing -- for now. Chinese diplomacy recently thwarted efforts to rally ASEAN behind a "code of conduct" in the South China Sea. Washington has announced plans to "rebalance" the U.S. Navy, shifting about 60 percent of fleet assets to the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. But the rebalancing is a modest affair. More than half of the U.S. Navy is already in the theater, and the rebalancing will take place in slow motion, spanning the next eight years.

Nor will the four-vessel U.S. littoral combat ship flotilla destined for Singapore (the first one is scheduled to arrive next spring) right the balance in Southeast Asia. These are not vessels designed to do battle against the likes of the PLA Navy. But having established the principle that most of the U.S. Navy should call the Pacific and Asia home, Washington can always speed up the rebalancing process, shift more forces, and even negotiate base access in or around Southeast Asia. Beijing knows that.

Beijing may have concluded that patient diplomacy will forfeit its destiny in the South China Sea. In Chinese eyes, it's better to act now -- and preempt the competition. The lesson of 1974: Timing is everything.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


In Beijing, a Flood of Complaints

As the Chinese capital cleans up from deadly floods, the country's netizens take to social media to blame officials.

The trouble with propaganda is that sometimes people believe it. On Saturday, July 21, Beijing saw its heaviest rainfall in 61 years, leading to massive -- and in some cases preventable -- flooding, forcing the evacuation of 50,000 people from neighborhoods and villages across the capital. Shortly after the rain stopped on Sunday night, the city government reported that a shocking 37 people had died: 25 had drowned, collapsed structures killed six, five were electrocuted, and one was hit by lightning. Chinese citizens were left wondering how their capital, the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending over the last decade and the seat of a government that claims to "serve its people with all its heart" still had a Third World sewer system.

More than 9 million people have so far commented on the storm on the Chinese Internet; many complained about a government response that they felt lacked thoroughness, especially in the hardest-hit area in the poorer southwestern district of Fangshan, and chided the officials for releasing what many believed at the time was an unrealistically low number of deaths, though no alternative credible counts have been released. On Tuesday, Beijing city government spokeswoman Wang Hui shot back against the claims. "We learned our lesson from SARS," she said, referring to the widespread criticisms of the government hush-up of the 2003 respiratory disease outbreak. "Everyone should know that we'll speak the truth." If it were only that simple.

On Tuesday, Chinese state media ran headlines saying that Guo Jinlong resigned from his post as mayor of Beijing to take over as Communist Party secretary, the highest-ranking position in the municipal government. Though the timing is strange, the move itself is not: Guo had been appointed party secretary in early July, and his resignation and appointment follows the pattern of the last few transfers of power in the Beijing city government. Indeed, in many ways, Guo has had it easy. Because the Communist Party controls the media, he can showcase positive images of rescuers helping stranded victims and put a lid on roving photographers publishing photos that show damaged infrastructure and official inaction. Likewise, while Sina Weibo users might gripe, the overly offensive content gets deleted. Guo's name is even blocked on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging website, making it more difficult to publicly criticize him.

Guo, wearing a button-down short-sleeve shirt (the garb favored by Chinese government officials who want to show they are men of the people getting things done), gave an interview at 1:35 a.m. on Sunday morning to state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) in which he said, "We're rushing to deal with this emergency with all of our strength." He forestalled criticism by acknowledging that the "storm tells us the city's infrastructure is still comparatively weak." And, of course, he didn't have to worry about answering any difficult questions.

But for all the advantages the system provides for Guo personally, the credibility of the system in general, and the Beijing city government in particular, took a direct hit from the storm. "When you establish the principle that 'We're in charge of everything,' then, when stuff happens, people point at you and say, 'You're in charge of everything, right? This is your fault,'" says Perry Link, an emeritus professor of East Asian studies at Princeton University. In China -- in perception, if not in practice -- the Communist Party controls most of the country's resources, and so gets much of the blame. Li Chengpeng, one of China's most popular bloggers, didn't blame Guo for the mismanagement (if he had, the post would have likely gotten him in trouble), but the system: "When the largest rainstorm in 61 years fell upon Beijing, I was a thousand kilometers away writing an article about how central government ministries and commissions spent 6 billion yuan [nearly $1 billion] buying cars for official use last year." In Beijing, he wrote, only private cars worked to save citizens. "The 6 billion performed no heroic deeds."

The director of Beijing's Meteorological Bureau, Qu Xiaobo, said on Sunday that his agency lacked the ability to warn Beijingers of the storm by text message, as it can only send 400 per minute. Yet China's three state-owned telecom companies regularly bombard millions of people with advertisements in a short period of time; indeed China Telecom said it had the text-messaging capabilities to warn its millions of subscribers in Beijing, but the city government didn't direct it to do so. "My spam messages always come in on time," complained Internet user "Local Area Network Netizen" in the comments section of a news story on the microblog Netease about the text-message delays. "When it involves the people, there's a technological obstacle," commented "Zhongshan Shu" on the same article. "But when it's about disseminating government policies, how come there's no obstacle?"

There's an old Chinese superstition that natural disasters reflect the displeasure of heaven and signal the changing of dynasty. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed around 250,000 people and happened six weeks before the death of Mao Zedong, was seen as heralding the end of an era. But more mundane natural disasters rarely see the sacking of even a top-ranking official. Less than a week after a downpour triggered a mudslide that buried more than 200 coal miners in Shanxi province in 2008, Gov. Meng Xuenong resigned; the party secretary survived.

In the unlikely event that Guo does get sacked, it will probably only happen months later, and after this fall -- when Beijing will host its once-in-a-decade political transition in which President Hu Jintao is expected to yield to his replacement, Xi Jinping, and where stability and party unity become paramount. "It's rare for the government to punish someone that high up immediately after a natural disaster," said a Chinese academic, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's bad publicity and not the party's tradition."

Still, Guo, like officials the world over, probably feels like he can't win. His spokeswoman, Wang, who has been active on Weibo promoting the government response to the crisis, responded to netizens' complaints about the police ticketing cars stuck in the water. She wrote that "Vice Mayor Ji Lin said it was incorrect to ticket cars that suddenly became stuck in the floodwaters; all such tickets will be made invalid." But even this display of authoritarian power wielded in the name of popular justice also caused some grumbling. "With one word the leader can invalidate a ticket," said Sina Weibo user "Shi Hun Kuang Gui," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Apparently nothing has changed and the leaders are still above the law. May I ask, outside of leaders, are there any other ways to settle issues? Is this how to build a society with rule of law?"

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Copy-edited July 26, 2012