By Benjamin Cost
Chinese general Luo Yan has proposed that Beijing tighten its military control in the South China Sea by increasing the presence of the National Coast Guard in the region. Luo claims that clamping down militarily in the area will foster the growth of Chinese fishing and oil operations.
The main point of controversy is that Luo’s proposed swath of territorial coverage for China encompasses pockets of sea owned by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
And by advocating for military involvement into the South China Sea, Luo may exacerbate the pre-existing friction between China and the South East Asian nations – a spat that’s seen China and Vietnam sabotage each other’s vessels on multiple occasions, and became so heated that the Philippines pushed renaming the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea.”
Adding fuel to the fire
The latest escalation concerned China denying accusations that Chinese troops harassed Vietnamese fishermen who sought shelter from a storm.
General Luo’s proposal will only fuel the resentment as the South East Asian nations are already beefing up their armament and even strengthening alliances with the United States. China has warned the US not to get involved, and has also made requests for the US to pull all military operations from the region.
You might be surprised to learn that despite the fact that Luo’s Macarthur-esque stance on the South China Sea correlates to recent Chinese actions in the region, he is not an official general. Instead, Luo heads the China Military Science Society and relays his often fanatical military propositions through the media; the most recent of which surfaced during a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Increased military spending
Nonetheless, his position lines up closely with official military strategy, which calls for expanding China’s naval presence to secure China’s sea trade routes – in this case, the South China Sea.
China’s projected 11.2 percent increase in its 2012 military budget includes two assets that will upgrade the country’s ability to carry a big stick in the South China Sea – namely, the refurbished Chinese aircraft carrier and the J-20 stealth fighter.
Chen Mingyi, former Communist Party chief of the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, declares that China should “sharpen our strategy on oceans as we did in developing the aerospace industry.”
“Important symbolic value”
However, while China’s naval bolstering may be an effort to foster trade, it’s becoming apparent that a maritime dick-waving contest is currently taking place. China even stated last August that, as the world’s second largest economy, it was ashamed to trail Brazil and Thailand in the naval department.
“There’s no doubt China’s new hardware has important symbolic value,” says Michael Beckley, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “The US Navy has to think twice now before getting too close to China’s shores.”
And so the murky waters surrounding the South China Sea issue may be deeper than they appear, especially considering the fact that bullied Southeast Asian nations are looking to the US for naval backup.