China’s assertion of maritime territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas in recent weeks has refocussed international attention on the region. Its maritime territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines have simultaneously come under the spotlight. Significantly, Beijing’s official propaganda apparatus has revived use of the phrase ‘core interests’ after a year-long hiatus, while referring to the contested maritime territories. The developments overlap the period when China launched its first aircraft carrier for 5-day long sea trials on August 10. China claims almost 3 million square kilometres in the South China Sea, but seeks to dominate the maritime area encompassing almost 5 million square kilometres.
Three incidents occurring within the span of almost a month stand out in particular. In two of these there was specific mention of the term ‘core interests’ — implying non-negotiable national sovereign interests — while referring to the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea. On August 29, China’s official news agency ‘Xinhua’ warned Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ‘to respect China’s core interests’. It clarified that these include ‘China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, especially when it comes to matters concerning Diaoyu islands, which are an integral part of China’s territory’. Included in this warning were injunctions against visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and to ‘properly’ treat Japan’s wartime past. The ‘Xinhua’ despatch cautioned that burgeoning trade relations alone could not ensure good bilateral relations.
Days later on August 31, just prior to Philippines President Aquino’s arrival in Beijing at the head of a 250-member delegation, ‘Xinhua’ again suggested that good relations cannot be based only on strong economic ties, but require ‘commitment to a proper settlement of the maritime disputes in the South China Sea’. It added: ‘China has always made itself loud and clear that it has indisputable sovereignty over the sea’s islands and surrounding waters, which is part of China’s core interests. That is based on unambiguous and undeniable historical facts’. The despatch assured that Beijing is willing to shelve differences and seek joint development, but objected to the Philippines president and Congressmen staking their claim on ‘Zhongye Dao’ Island in the South China Sea.
The third incident is very different and could suggest that Beijing is testing the waters before raising the threshold for enforcement of its maritime territorial claims. This incident, which has direct implications for India, occurred on July 22, and involved an Indian Navy ship. The indigenously-built, 5,650-tonne, Shardul Class amphibious warfare ship, INS Airavat, was sailing in international waters 45 nautical miles off Vietnam’s Nha Trang port when it received a broadcast on an open radio channel from someone identified merely as the ‘Chinese Navy’. The broadcast said the ship was entering ‘Chinese waters’, and instructed it to leave. The captain of the Indian vessel identified no ships on the radar nor sighted any ships visually in the vicinity and continued on his journey. The incident has not been confirmed by the Vietnamese authorities and the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson side-stepped a response saying that no reply has been received from the Chinese ministry of defence on the matter.
These incidents are indicators that China has possibly revised its position on asserting itself on issues of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. They coincide with the leadership transition underway in China, which will see a new generation of leaders assuming high office at the next party congress in 2012.
When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the US in January, he deliberately avoided categorising the South China Sea as one of China’s ‘core interests’ along with Taiwan and Tibet. The South China Sea was last described as one of China’s ‘core interests’ in May 2010, by Dai Bingguo, a former Chinese vice foreign minister and presently China’s special representative for various countries including India. China was also compelled to acquiesce to US being designated an Asia-Pacific power in the joint communiqué issued in January 2011. Hu Jintao’s decision was in spite of a survey posted on the website of the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily asking readers whether the South China Sea should be labelled a ‘core interest’. As of January this year, 97 per cent of the nearly 4,300 respondents had said ‘yes’.
The recent Chinese actions come in the wake of the National People’s Congress — China’s version of a parliament — session in March, and official disclosure four months later that the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) will have an enhanced role in safeguarding the country’s maritime territories. With that objective the SOA is to increase its inventory of ships to 350 by 2015 and 520 by 2020. An article in the Jiefangjun Bao of July 27, stated that ‘presently the People’s Republic of China is facing a very grim situation in the protection of its rights and interests of the seas. More than half of the three million sq kms of waters that should fall under China’s jurisdictions according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea are under demarcation disputes with peripheral countries’. It claimed that large quantities of China’s oil, gas and fishery resources had been plundered.
The incident involving an Indian Navy ship appears to be the first of its kind and is especially intriguing. It could suggest that Beijing is preparing to initiate a propaganda campaign centring on its claims in the South China Sea. In that case all ships traversing waters claimed by China should receive such broadcasts. It could also suggest that Beijing has singled out India, as it did around the time of the largest-ever US-ROK joint naval exercises in March last year. In such a case the action would be intended as a subtle warning to India against close cooperation with the US and other countries in the region, like Vietnam. The message that growing economic ties are no indication of good bilateral relations is of relevance to India too. Finally, these developments could be of import for the two high level meetings scheduled between India and China. The special representative-level talks are due in Beijing by the end of this month, to soon be followed by a delegation led by India’s deputy chairman of the Planning Commission to discuss economic and trade matters.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India