Friday, July 1, 2011

Chinese dilemmas in the South China Sea

Vietnam has conducted unprecedented live-fire naval exercises after accusing Chinese ships of entering its territorial waters and attacking its oil-exploration vessels twice in the past month.

While Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei has declared that China "will not resort to the use of force," an intense diplomatic duel continues. Nationalist forces are brewing in both countries, and a non-negligible risk of war remains.

The row shows the considerable challenges China faces in defending its controversial claims over the area. The PRC has long declared ownership of the waters around the Spratly and Paracel Islands, refusing to countenance its rivals' claims. Its map of the region includes a nine-dash line that American scholar Donald Emmerson has compared to a "giant lapping tongue" thrust towards China's neighbors.

In recent years, the PRC has generally tried to follow early 20th century US President Teddy Roosevelt's advice to "speak softly and carry a big stick."

During his first visit to the annual Shangri-La Strategic Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie reiterated that "China unswervingly follows the path of peaceful development" and that it will "never seek hegemony or military expansion."

Most of China's neighbors, though, are not convinced. They believe Beijing's gentle rhetoric belies more bruising behavior in the Paracels and Spratlys. (read more)