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Retrospect and Prospects for the Security of China’s Periphery

On December 31, 2009, Global Times published an article, “Retrospect and Prospects for the Security of China’s Periphery.” The author considers that China’s peripheral security situation is “overall stable but some areas are not; it is mitigated in the east, urgent in the west, harmonious in the north, and worrisome in the south.” The following is an excerpt from this article. [1]

In 2009, China’s periphery was generally stable. The situation has been “mitigated in the east, and is urgent in the west, harmonious in the north, and worrisome in the south.” On the east side, regarding the Sino-US and the Sino-Japan relationship, a situation quite rare in many years is that the parties get along very well, alleviating a lot of the pressure on security. Since President Obama took office, the U.S. government has been seeking to develop a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship with China. The Sino-U.S. military dialogue, once halted due to the Bush administration’s arms sales to Taiwan, has resumed, improving the bilateral trust between high-level military leaders. [2] As Japan’s new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been actively promoting Asian diplomacy, the Sino-Japan relation has significantly improved. During Hatoyama’s visit to China, he promised to stick to the “Murayama Statement” in spirit on historical issues, bridge differences, build a reliable relationship, and promote a mutually beneficial strategic bond.

On the East China Sea issue, although there has been an overall improvement in the Sino-Japan relationship, disputes over maritime rights remain. Japan has stepped up the use of military force in monitoring the Diaoyu Islands (a.k.a. the Senkaku Islands), and has sought to expand its marine strategic domain. Japan is to construct harbor facilities on Chongniao Island (a.k.a. the Okinotorishima) in an effort to show “territorial sovereignty.”

At the same time, the security in the north continues to get better. The Sino-Russia relationship is deepening, with military cooperation as an important part of the bilateral strategic partnership. The “Peace Mission of 2009” joint anti-terrorist military exercise once again demonstrated the determination of the two countries to face new threats and challenges. The stable development has boosted the security partnership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and has consolidated the stability of China’s northern border.

In 2009, new initiatives in regional cooperation emerged in Northeast Asia. The second China-Japan-S Korea Beijing summit issued the “China, Japan, and South Korea’s Joint Declaration on the Tenth Anniversary of Cooperation” and “China, Japan, and South Korea’s Joint Declaration on Sustainable Development,” setting up priorities for future trilateral cooperation. In the past, leaders of the three countries met only at the ASEAN 10+3 meeting. The newly initiated separate meeting reflects the emphasis of the three countries on Northeast Asian cooperation.

However, the security situation on China’s west is very urgent, and there are major worries in the south. The security situation in Afghanistan has become a major threat to the western frontier. With the war zone spreading into Pakistan, the borderline of the two countries has become the battlefield between the U.S. military with its allies and the Taliban/al-Qaeda group. The reverse development in Afghanistan’s security situation caused the religious extremists and international terrorist forces in Pakistan to surge. Terrorist activities are going rampant; they even heavily damaged the Pakistan army headquarters. The continued turmoil in Pakistan has led to tensions between Pakistan and India.
In 2009, the security situation on the south border deteriorated. India continued to create a tense atmosphere by sending additional troops to the disputed border, deploying high-tech equipment, and accelerating the migration of population to the region. Disregarding China’s strong opposition, India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the Tawang region in an attempt to “contain China with Tibet.” In addition, in 2009, the Sino-Burmese border was not quiet. Myanmar government forces moved to the north, reorganized the minority armed forces, and raided the Bold region. This caused many refugees to move into Yunnan Province.

In 2009, the number of disputes on the South China Sea between China and its maritime neighbors in Southeast Asia significantly increased. With the approaching deadline for the countries to ratify UNCLOS (The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), and to submit to the “Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf” regarding the “Case Concerning the Delimitation of the Outer Continental Shelf,” some countries are taking advantage of this time and re-delimiting the ocean boarders to compete with China for the ownership of the islands and the maritime space. China’s sovereignty over its maritime territory and the security of its maritime rights are facing major challenges.

The Philippine Congress passed the “Ocean Baseline Act,” which claimed the Huangyan Island and some of the reefs of the Nansha Islands (a.k.a. Spratly Islands), which are part of China. Vietnam submitted the case of “Delimitation of the Outer Continental Shelf,” claiming sovereignty over China’s Xisha Islands (a.k.a. the Paracel Islands) and Nansha Islands (a.k.a. the Spratly Islands). Malaysia and Vietnam jointly submitted proposals in order to take over and divide up the Nansha Islands. Malaysia’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister Badawi personally went to the Swallow Reef and Ardasier Reef of Nansha Island to declare sovereignty.

Factors complicating maritime security are increasing. The U.S. has strengthened its strategic investment in the western Pacific Ocean by deploying a large quantity of advanced naval and air forces into the region. Specifically, it deployed 12 F-22 Raptors to the Kadena Air Base, upgraded Okinawa into a level-1 combat base, expanded Alpha and Bravo piers, and deployed a new style Ohio class SSGN (nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine).

At the same time, the U.S. made more moves around the South China Sea. It held joint military exercises with the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore. In the year of 2009, the U.S. seemed to be more willing to step from behind the curtain to the front on disputes regarding rights on the South China Sea. It was involved in two “right of passage” incidents including the USNS Impeccable Incident and USS John McCain Incident.

India has also intensified its attention and penetration in the region. Its naval fleet held a joint naval exercise with Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea on a cruise in the South China Sea. In addition, some countries around the South China Sea invited the oil companies of the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Italy, France, Russia, and other countries to join the event, in an attempt to internationalize the South China Sea issue. The involvement of the nations outside the region has further complicated the disputes over the South China Sea.

In 2009, forming a regional integration was gaining momentum. At the 15th ASEAN Summit, the 12th ASEAN 10+1 and 10+3 Summits, and the Fourth East Asia Summit, the focus was on the financial crisis and climate security, with a number of results achieved. ASEAN 10+3 leaders agreed to establish an East Asian foreign exchange reserve so as to safeguard regional financial market stability. What is particularly worth mentioning is that the leaders of the countries also agreed to promote the East Asian Community (EAC). In addition, the U.S., showing great interest in participating in the regional integration, signed the “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia” with ASEAN countries.

In 2009, the cooperation among the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in promoting regional economic development and safeguarding regional security and stability continued to progress. Leaders signed the “Yekaterinburg Declaration” and agreed to actively promote cooperation in new industries, facilitate trade and investment, explore the potential in observer countries and dialogue partners, and expand areas of cooperation. In addition, member states also signed the “Convention on Counterterrorism,” further consolidating the legal basis for cooperation in combating terrorism.

As each state has its own motivation for promoting regional cooperation, the interests interlock with conflicts. The U.S. was highly worried about the idea of the East Asian Community (EAC) proposed by Japan, claiming it would exacerbate the “grouping” of the world economies, with an “adverse effect on the Sino-US strategic balance.” The U.S. wishes to break the EAC with the U.S. style of cooperation by strengthening its control across the Pacific region and coordination in the region. The U.S. said it would follow the ASEAN +3 model, where China, Japan, and South Korea joined with ASEAN to establish a free trade area, and establish a 10 +1 version with ASEAN. The U.S. also put forward the “USA – Mekong Basin cooperation” to compete with China’s “Lancang – Mekong sub-regional cooperation.” Japan’s high-profile launch of the EAC idea was for a relationship with U.S. on an equal footing and accelerating the process of “breaking away from the U.S. and joining Asia.” Its launch of the mechanism of the “Japan – Mekong Ministerial Conference,” and the holding of the “Japan – Mekong Summit” were for developing a geo-political advantage comparable to China. Australia’s strategic view resembles that of the U.S. It has its own idea of integration, hoping to establish an “Asia-Pacific community” that includes the U. S. so as to weaken Japan’s EAC. The ASEAN countries are both looking forward to and on alert for the EAC, fearing that the dominance of regional cooperation might drift. ASEAN sought to pull big powers outside the region into the East Asia cooperation network, so that major powers would contain each other. They constructed the “ASEAN – Russia Summit,” and also timely launched the “U.S. – ASEAN Summit.”

However, the disharmony factors on China’s periphery will remain for a long time. There is a long way to go to achieve perimeter security. The North Korea nuclear issue, which caused tension in the region, is difficult to improve within a short period of time. The security issues in the post-North Korean-nuclear-crisis need to be prepared for. Obama’s plan of sending more troops to Afghanistan will anger the extremist forces in Afghanistan. It has become increasingly evident that Afghanistan is becoming a second Iraq. Obama’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy continues to drag Pakistan into the quagmire of the U.S.’s war on terrorism. The situation in South Asia will still be volatile. The United States’ interest in Myanmar suddenly increased. Giving up hope of changing the regime, it has instead attempted to utilize the current regime to put in a new strategic wedge in Southeast Asia. In the South China Sea, although the situation has some degree of control, the effects of the involvement of countries outside the region should not be underestimated. China is in the situation of one versus many, and also in the situation of big versus small. This can easily lead to international misunderstandings. Variables in perimeter security have increased, and therefore the task of strengthening mutual trust and nurturing agreement on security can still be arduous.

[1] Global Times, December 31, 2009
[2] This article was written prior to U.S. President Obama’s announcement on January 29, 2010, of an arms sale package to Taiwan worth about $6.4 billion.