The Bigger Picture
Why China is desperate to make friends with the world
Taking lessons from the USA, Beijing know it needs allies to become a global power.
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There is one aspect of contemporary Chinese policy in the South China Sea that India has known well for some time. This is the process of creating new facts on the ground to assert a boundary claim.
This is what happened, most notably, in the Aksai Chin area where there lines have shifted steadily. Initially, China, with the goal of building its strategic highway linking Xinjiang with Tibet, fobbed off all Indian queries about the border. They broadly claimed the McCartney-McDonald Line of 1899 which ran along the Karakoram watershed, but which was still within the Indian claim. When questioned on this, they said that these were old maps.
Subsequently, they occupied the Lingzi-Tang Plains to the west of this line. But till 1960, they left the Chip Chap and Galwan River Valley to India. Thereafter they began to press westward. In September 1962, before the war, the LAC ran from Karakoram Pass, skirted Chip Chap and Galwan valleys, thence to Kongka La, Damba Guru and Khurnak Fort.
However, after the war, the Chinese occupied the two valleys, and pushed westward beyond Samzungling and Khurnak Fort by anywhere between ten-100kms. Even now, as the Depsang Plains incident of 2013 revealed, the Chinese are maintaining a westward pressure on the LAC with India.
As for the Eastern sector, after indicating in 1960-80, that they were willing to trade it for an Indian acceptance of their western claims, the Chinese now say that this is actually "southern Tibet", and that the dispute in relations lies there.
Something similar is now happening in the South China Sea where the Chinese have insisted that the Nine Dash line, of completely spurious provenance, is their maritime boundary. Given the pushback from the states of the region - Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, the Chinese have resorted to a new tactic of building islands on what were submerged reefs and rocks.
Through the process, they claim territorial waters 12 nautical miles around these newly created artificial outcrops, and an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles. A Chinese admiral pointed out in the recent Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore, that the Chinese position was both "legitimate and reasonable", it was not restricting freedom of navigation and that China wanted to use these new islands for public service and was actually building lighthouses to aid navigation.
The US has strongly rejected the process of reclamation, and as it alleges, emplacement of military equipment on the islands. US secretary of defence called on China to halt the reclamation in his remarks at the Shangrila Dialogue, but there was no response. Even direct questions on the issue were evaded by the Chinese leader of the delegation, Admiral Sun Jianguo.
But discerning observers are pointing out that the US has no real answers on ways of dealing with this Chinese salami tactic. In his response to a direct question on the issue, all Carter could say was that China would pay a price for alienating its neighbours, but did not give any hint of a US plan to deal with the issue. "One of the consequences of that," he noted, "will be the continued coalescing of concerned nations around the world," presumably of the affected nations with the US.
There is an irony here. Even as China appears to look at the issue in the South China Sea as a zero-sum game, one which it must win, with a view of shoring up its defensive perimeter, in the oceans beyond, it is seeking to collaborate with other countries to expand its influence.
Beijing knows that it cannot become a global power without friends. As the US has known, there is a limit to what you can do alone. The US with its network of friends, allies and partners is a case in point. The new China military strategy document makes no bones about China's desire to play a more proactive role in international security affairs. The document therefore outlines China's search for enhanced security partnerships, an expanded role in peacekeeping operations, alongside the creation of new power projection capabilities.
The problem for China is that it has relentlessly put national interest ahead of everything that the sum total of its foreign "friends" is two - Pakistan and North Korea. Countries like Russia and Iran that are coming close to Beijing, are doing so because of their antipathy to the US.
The military strategy document is a categorical assertion of China's coming out as a world power and its interests in virtually every corner of the world. What it is doing here is also what it has being doing on its borders - creating facts on the ground - and getting the world to adjust to them.