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How Beijing Views the U.S., The Games in the China Sea

[Editor’s Note: A recent article may shed some light on Beijing’s view of the U.S. ambition and strategy in the seas around China. The article appeared in the International Herald Leader, a weekly newspaper under Xinhua News Agency. The following is a translation of selected parts of the article.] [1]

“The current Chinese navy is constantly moving forward toward the blue ocean dream. Since the end of 2008, the Chinese naval fleet has been constantly taking anti-piracy escort missions on the Indian Ocean. In March an April of this year, at least 19 ships passed through the “first island chain” and went into the Pacific Ocean. On July 26, three Chinese naval fleets held the largest and most complex military exercises in China’s history in the South China Sea.”

“Air Force Colonel Dai Xu said that when he looks at the towering mast of the Chinese navy today, his brain still thinks about Zheng He’s Fleet during the Ming Dynasty. How large was Zheng He’s fleet? According to Hong Kong Baptist University history professor Zhou Jiarong, it was even bigger than the current U.S. aircraft carrier fleet.”

“However, the current U.S. aircraft carrier fleet is perhaps the biggest obstacle on the road to protecting our rights on the water.”

The U.S. Military Strategy of Breaking into the China Sea, Step by Step

“On May 18, a number of strategic experts with military backgrounds from the United States think tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), issued a report specifically about China, titled ‘AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept.’ [2] The report begins with mentioning China’s threat, and claims that ‘the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is taking great efforts to improve their combat power of anti-intervention, which will increase the risks for the United States to deliver military power in the west Pacific Ocean.’”

“An insider from Washington revealed to the International Herald Leader that this ‘AirSea Battle’ theory, which specifically targets China, has been placed on the desk of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Gates has asked the navy to develop specific concepts for the ‘AirSea Battle.’ The Air Force Chief of Staff and the Chief of Naval Operations have both approved this task.”

“If this new operational concept gets implemented in the U.S. military, then all the recent activities of the U.S. military, including the USS George Washington aircraft carrier repeatedly exercising near the sea surrounding China, and the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced fourth-generation F-22 Raptor fighter plane flying above the Korean Peninsula, can all be understood as the U.S. military’s effort to implement this concept.”

“Washington has already laid out the situation on the chess board. A Chinese navy official, who asked that his name not be disclosed, told us that the reason the U.S. has been playing the spoiler role in China’s Yellow Sea and South Sea is to plant wedges in China’s most crucial maritime security regions. A Japanese government think-tank scholar, who is familiar with Chinese naval affairs, said that along the north-south direction, there are nine routes for the Chinese navy to follow in order to enter the outside ocean. Out of the nine routes, six of them are at the Tsugaru Strait and Osumi Strait, surrounding Japan’s islands and have been closely monitored by the U.S. and Japan. The other three routes are through the Malacca Strait in the South China Sea.”

“On August 8, the USS George Washington traveled near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and had a joint military exercise with the Vietnamese. On August 14, the George Washington stopped in Singapore. On August 4, the Seventh Fleet flagship Blue Ridge visited Manila. Through these activities, the U.S. is issuing a warning to China: the United States has the ability to blockade the South China Sea channel.”

“Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy said that due to the escalation of the military conflicts between the U.S. and China, the situation near China’s surrounding oceans has begun to deteriorate. He told us that it is widely believed that the Chinese military has become more self-confident and the strength of the U.S. military has begun to weaken, but the U.S. cannot allow this impression to continue to grow.”

“Therefore, the U.S. needs to show its strength. Moreover, in Obama’s era, the U.S. military antenna is led by its diplomatic soft power. On July 21, on the way to her daughter’s wedding, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited South Korea and on July 23, she visited Vietnam. This was followed by the U.S. and South Korea’s large-scale joint military exercise ‘Indomitable Will,’ as well as the U.S. and Vietnam’s joint naval exercise.”

“It is the new strategy of the United States to use its diplomatic soft power and military hard power to support each other and comprehensively deal with the rise of China’s power on the ocean. On August 7, the U.S. changed its attitude, held over the years, of ignoring Japan’s invitation and, in high-profile, sent Ambassador Ross to attend the commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Under the U.S. influence, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan recently issued a statement and apologized for Japan’s colonial rule in Korea. The U.S.’s goal is to form a triple alliance with Japan and South Korea, and get ready to create an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

China’s Great Difficulties Trying to Break into the Ocean

“While U.S. attention in the past 10 years was on terrorism, China used this time to upgrade both its economic strength and the setup of its military equipment, and also to successfully resolved all of its land border disputes with its neighbors, with the exception of India. China finally has the opportunity to be able to look toward the ocean. China has set the national maritime strategy of ‘building a great maritime power.’ Among the specific plans, building an ‘actively defensive ocean navy’ is an important part of maintaining China’s rights on the ocean.”

“However, every step that China has taken toward the ocean has been very difficult. Professor Zheng Yongnian, who lives in Singapore, said that for China to go into the ocean, the only space is through the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean, but if the U.S. gets actively involved in the South China Sea, then China’s backyard will be on fire. Thus even if China’s navy is able to get out, it will likely face the embarrassment of not being able to come back.”

“On China’s path to the ocean, not only is there the danger to confront the U.S. military head on, but China may also suffer public opinion attacks from the surrounding countries. This is because China has already been cast in the role of ‘the threat to regional stability,’ while the United States has put itself in the role of ‘big brother’ who is ready to ‘help out.’”

“This puts China in a very awkward position: on the one hand China faces the strong military pressure imposed by the United States, and on the other hand, the neighboring countries are taking advantage of it. This is particularly prominent regarding the South China Sea issue. Li Guoqiang, a researcher at China’s Academy of Social Sciences and an expert on the South China Sea issue, has told us that Vietnam was recently able to get involved in the South China Sea affair with the help of the U.S. and is attempting to restrain China in order to solidify its vested interests in the South China Sea. ‘Getting involved in the South China Sea affairs with the help of outside powers is very dangerous. It will make the South China Sea situation even more complicated, and cause more tension and conflict in that region. This is precisely what the outside powers want to see.’”

“The excuse that the U.S. uses to intervene in the South China Sea affairs is to maintain freedom of navigation on the high seas, but China does not oppose freedom of navigation on the high seas. Then what exactly is the purpose of the U.S.? Australian Professor Carl Thayer explained it to us. On the map, the borderlines around the South China Sea Islands are very ambiguous. If China does have sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands, then most of the South China Sea will become China’s territorial sea. Then China could place restrictions on foreign vessels that pass through. As a maritime power, this is what the United States cannot accept. ‘If the United States does not challenge China’s position on the South China Sea, then China can say that the U.S. has accepted China’s interpretation of the South China Sea.’”

“Hillary Clinton’s talk about the South China Sea on July 23 was precisely based on the above consideration. Although the United States did not act much, it was enough to shock the principles of bilateral negotiations that China has always adhered to regarding the South China Sea issues. Professor Thayer said that although the U.S. intervention could make the situation in the South China Sea more complicated, if they could push the South China Sea issue to be resolved in the framework of negotiations between China and ASEAN, then it would meet the wishes of the Southeast Asian countries.”

[1] International Herald Leader, August 25, 2010
[2] ‘AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept’