Sansha is China’s answer to Washington’s move to Asia – Robert A Manning
Proclaiming a new city on the 2km long atoll in the South China Sea (population some 150 fishermen), replete with its own mayor, municipal council, and military garrison takes the issue a step beyond diplomatic quarrels with other claimants, in this case the Philippines and Vietnam. China appears to also view its newly anointed Sansha as a sort of administrative and monitoring hub for the wider South China Sea area.
Beijing has long asserted that all within what are known as the “nine dash lines,” some 80 percent of the South China Sea, is sovereign Chinese territory. This claim contradicts the Law of the Sea (LOS) Treaty, which limits economic zones to within 200 miles of a nation’s continental shelf. Beijing argues that these claims were Chinese territory prior to the LOS treaty, and are somehow consistent with it. However, China did not control Woody island (which it calls Yongxing Dao) until 1974 when it engaged in a naval clash with Hanoi that left 71 Vietnamese dead.
In 2010, China suggested that these disputed South China Sea territories were part of its “core interests” in the same nonnegotiable sovereign territory category as Taiwan and Tibet. Beijing subsequently appeared to walk back that view after a strong reaction by ASEAN and the US. However, China’s new measures do not inspire confidence that it has a more restrained definition of core interests.
But there is a larger point as well. Ever since Washington announced its “rebalancing,” with the Pentagon announcing in June that it would station 60 percent of its navy in the Pacific by 2020, Chinese strategists have been casting about for how to respond. The United States takes no position on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea other than a desire to see them resolved peacefully. The principal US national interest is in maintaining unimpeded freedom of navigation.
Could it be that Beijing sees its assertiveness as a lowcost, low-risk way to show Washington a bit of its own version of the Monroe Doctrine? To be sure, China is well aware that its assertiveness is not well received in East Asia, and tends to lead smaller nations to tilt to the US to balance China. But Beijing seems to be calculating that despite the more robust US military posture in the region, China can throw its weight around and the US response will be limited to diplomatic reprimand. Beijing seems to be betting that the US will not intervene militarily if there is a naval skirmish between China and Vietnam or the Philippines in the South China Sea.
It may be a message from Beijing in effect, “this is our neighborhood, you don’t call the shots.” Perhaps. But where does such logic take China’s role in the emerging international order? It is one thing if in a rules-based world, China seeks a larger role in shaping the rules, commensurate with increased economic and political weight. It is quite another if the message is simply about power. If the latter is the case, China is likely to be more successful in mobilizing a broad-based coalition of states seeking to counter-balance it than to obtain its objectives as a singular actor.
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