The ASEAN Post is dedicated to covering all matters concerning the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Recently this journal has been focused diligently on Chinese claims in the South China Sea. The fact is that the nations of that region have all been publicly drawing attention to the subject. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has vigorously pursued its ambition to control that entire waterway, and thus the region. Small and large islands in this oceanic region are targets for development by the Chinese in total disregard of the impact on historical interests and understandings of many regional countries. These include among others, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and even Cambodia. Obviously, regional Western powers such as Australia, New Zealand, and even Great Britain with its traditional activity in that area are involved. The United States has maintained an economic and political interest and presence in that region since World War II. The truth is that many countries outside the region have interests requiring free access to the South China Sea.
Adding to the PRC’s aggressive goal is the establishment of two administrative districts intended to govern this vast area. Where there are no natural islands to claim, Beijing has been constructing artificial islands at geographically strategic positions, a priority for China’s technical people who seek to explore and exploit valuable oil and gas resources as well as deepwater rare mineral deposits. Of course, there are also politically strategic reasons for this well-planned acquisition program. The combination of these goals actually provides Beijing with a panoply of negotiating positions when it comes to the expected international arguments to arrive. It’s a very clever move. Establishing claims over wide areas of the South China Sea allows Xi Jinping’s government to trade-off for areas to which they have little or no legitimate sovereignty in the first place.
All of this is occurring during this period of the coronavirus pandemic. This timing (purposeful or not) takes political-military advantage of an issue of overwhelming international concern. The circumstance may be accidental, but it certainly is advantageous as the world’s attention is elsewhere. However, the timing is purely accidental as China long has had its eyes on controlling this economically and politically important site in Southeast Asia.
There is little question that Beijing is well aware that their actions essentially challenge the American naval dominance in this area of the Pacific that has been of priority importance since WW ll. This is a critical issue in the relations between the two nations. It is surprising, therefore, that Beijing would pursue this competitive route with Washington at a time when cooperation on an economic basis is so important for both sides, though clearly more so for the PRC.
There have been many explanations and analyses put forth on the foregoing subject, but the truth may be far clearer than it appears. China’s military has been forced to take a back seat during the period of Xi’s leadership. Dominance over the South China Sea and the implicit challenge to the U.S. and its allies in the region is a reflection of the Chinese military/intelligence program to retain and increase its self-perceived and justified political dominance.
Parallel and not unconnected to their aggressive role in the South China Sea is the PRC’s program called “Thousand Talents.” This extensive operation is aimed to penetrate the American and European world to acquire evolving methodology in all science fields to the point of even seeking to gain patents on new technology they have unearthed from Western university research with a particular targeting of the United States. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has done exceptional work in leading the charge to expose this extensive Chinese intelligence program. The former American ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, has estimated that there are 350,000 Chinese students and other trained visiting “academics” in the U.S. The connection with Beijing’s operations in the South China Sea is played out in the mode of penetration of the academic world where the islands to be exploited are intellectual rather than physical.
While easier to penetrate and exploit the American and European academic scene in order to steal emerging secret information, the “invasion” of the South China Sea and its environs by/for Chinese military and economic interests can be countered with an aggressive awareness and action by Western allies. However, they must be willing to confront overtly and covertly the new sophisticated form of Chinese aggression. This seems to require military and direct political action, something not yet seen – or perhaps even contemplated.