Pentagon warns China on Spratlys, Scarborough backlash

By Jojo Malig,

Posted at May 21 2012 11:47 PM | Updated as of May 22 2012 06:02 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The US Department of Defense has warned China that it courts backlash from other countries if it insists on its aggressive stand on territorial disputes.

The Pentagon, in its 2012 report to the US Congress on the military and security developments involving China, said Beijing must balance its interests if it wants to maintain harmony with other countries that it depends on for economic growth and development.

"Beijing is finding it increasingly difficult to balance these interests, particularly when the pursuit of one conflicts with the pursuit of another," said report released over the weekend.

It mentioned China's territorial disputes with other countries, including the Philippines.

"China's leaders view the first two decades of the 21st century as a 'period of strategic opportunity' for China’s growth and development. They assess that this period will include a generally favorable external environment, characterized by interdependence, cooperation, and a low threat of major power war.

"They believe this provides China a unique opportunity to focus on internal development while avoiding direct confrontation with the United States and other great powers. China’s leaders do not expect this period to be free of tension or competition (as evidenced by periodic flare-ups with neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China Sea) or to last indefinitely," the report said.

It said Chinese military theorists see the Spratlys and Scarborough shoal as belonging to the "first island chain" of China's maritime perimeter.

The Philippines itself is in the "second island chain" of China's maritime perimeter that extends from Japan to Guam.

China's aggressive behavior

A September 2011 paper published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in the United States said China's aggressive behavior over disputed territory seems to have started in 1999 with an annual unilateral fishing ban.

It said maritime security patrols in West Philippine Sea by ships from China's Fisheries Administration first began around 2000, while its People's Liberation Army Navy started conducting regular patrols in the disputed waters since 2005.

"In the first half of 2011, China's maritime patrols have apparently begun targeting hydrocarbon seismic exploration vessels, while previously they had focused primarily on fishing boats. These increased patrols have resulted in clashes with Philippine and Vietnamese ships that some observers identify as evidence of a significantly more assertive posture," it said.

It added that China has built an advanced oil rig for use in the South China Sea.

It mentioned observations that growing Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea are "a prime example of Beijing’s greater assertiveness in recent years and  months."

"In many cases, the implication is that China has in some fundamental sense altered its strategy and approach to managing its maritime claims in that region, from an emphasis on negotiation to an increasing reliance on coercion and a use of force," the study warned.

The paper, however, believes that China's growing assertiveness is only the result of Beijing's reaction to the activities of other countries in disputed territories.

"In the past few years, China has not altered it basic, longstanding two-sided strategy of a) avoiding conflict while deferring the resolution of difficult disputes (such as those in the East China Sea and South China Sea) in favor of negotiation and cautious management (sometimes involving notable concessions), while b) maintaining a resolute defense against perceived attempts by others to undermine China’s diplomatic, legal, political, economic, and military position," it said. 
"When possible, Beijing has attempted to maintain an emphasis on bilateral negotiation and avoid conflict," the paper said.

'Not China's bathtub'

Other analysts, meanwhile, believe that China must learn to stop acting aggressively regarding its territorial claims.

"The message to China is simple: The South China Sea is not China's bathtub to do as it pleases. China must decide whether it wishes to maintain an antagonistic approach to territorial claims outside its legal and territorial reach," said Country Risk Solutions executive official Daniel Wagner and international comparative law experts Edsel Tupaz and Ira Paulo Pozon in a Huffington Post essay published Sunday.

"A sensible approach would be to declare victory, and leave while it is ahead," they said.

"The South China Sea/West Philippine Sea will ultimately be a litmus test for whether China will cease to act as an unwieldy 800-pound gorilla that does as it pleases and will instead act as a responsible member of the international community, willing to engage other contestants in a rules-based regime in accordance with established norms of diplomacy and consistent with a nation of its importance and stature," the essay added.

Wagner, Tupaz and Pozon believe that China's behavior will force the Philippines and other claimant countries in the region to strengthen ties with the United States -- further alienating Beijing.

"With China maintaining an adversarial approach to its well overstretched claim to the South China Sea, the Philippines and other countries in the region have little choice but to strengthen alliances with the United States," they said. "Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore have all done the same. The Philippines will in the end benefit from an enhanced military relationship with the U.S., as will other countries in the region."

Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012