Eurasia Review has quite a bit to say about the South China Sea conflict, and the failure of Chinese diplomacy. This isn’t the first time Chinese propaganda, originally meant for internal consumption, has painted their leadership into a corner- and then damaged their foreign policy outcomes:
When China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin confidently asserted shortly before the East Asia Summit at Bali, Indonesia, that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved between the ‘parties concerned’ bilaterally, little did he realise how isolated China had become over this issue. A series of blistering articles emanating from Beijing left no one in doubt that if push came to shove, China would use force to assert its rights in the South China Sea. The butt of Chinese ire seemed to be directed at the Philippines and Vietnam. For the Chinese the ‘fault’ of the Philippines lay in the fact that it had renamed the South China Sea as the West Philippines Sea, called on ASEAN to form a ‘united front’ and sent an official to claim sovereignty over a disputed islet. China threatened that the ‘punishment’ would be ‘strong’ enough to deter other countries from emulating the Philippines example and to ‘discourage’ other countries from ‘dreams to join the United States to contain China’.
Far from achieving its objectives based on threats, the Chinese found to their consternation that the East Asia Summit not only took up the issue of disputes in the South China Sea, despite their objections, but except for Myanmar and Cambodia every other country spoke up on the issue. The unease felt by the Chinese was palpable and it forced the Chinese PM Wen Jiabao to refer to the dispute in a multi-lateral forum. Wen asserted that China goes to great ‘pains’ to ensure that the shipping lanes are safe and free. It is learned that Wen did not reiterate the standard Chinese line that such disputes be settled ‘bilaterally’, although the official Xinhua report said that he ‘re-affirmed’ China’s position.
It is obvious that the Chinese wish to deal bilaterally with the countries of South and East Asia in order to prevent them from ‘ganging-up’ against China. Another worry that the Chinese have is that collectively ASEAN might bring the South China Sea dispute before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and that China may not be able to validate its stated position in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS]. Such an eventuality would be a serious loss face for China.
That Chinese diplomacy has played right into hands of the US is increasingly being recognized. Chinese threats and bluster have antagonized almost all the nations of East and South East Asia. Alarm bells have been ringing in their respective capitals as to what the Chinese intentions are. Not willing to take any chances on Chinese belligerence, almost all have begun to strengthen their defence networks. Vietnam has increased its defence budget by 70 per cent this year and Indonesia announced a 35 per cent increase in its defence outlay for this year. The Republic of Korea [ROK] is building a large naval base on Jeju Island whose location indicates that it will cater for security in the East China Sea rather than against North Korea. The US has agreed to retrofit 145 Taiwanese F-16 fighters. Similarly, Malaysia and Singapore have increased their defense purchases by a whopping 700 per cent and 140 per cent respectively.
Even in the case of India, Chinese ham-handedness and belligerence have led to the addition of two new divisions for the Indian army to be deployed along the Sino-Indian border region. The US, Japan and India are to have a trilateral security dialogue by the end of this year followed by joint Indo-Japan naval exercises in 2012. The Chinese decision to staple visas on a piece of paper rather than on regular passports for residents of Jammu and Kashmir, now happily rescinded in some cases, was a needless provocation. So have been the propaganda blasts every time an Indian leader visits Arunachal Pradesh.
Beijing seems to have a really hard time balancing the steady IV drip of nationalist fury they need to keep the population on their side with the reality that other nations can hear their propaganda. Then leaders have to either be as belligerent as the latest Xinhua article, or be seen as selling out their country by the folks back home. The solution is to cut down the all-nationalism diet a bit, but what else holds China together?