China between war and peace

By Ameen Izzadeen
China has read the Riot Act. The warning, as forthright as forthright could be, is aimed not only at regional countries with whom China is embroiled in territorial disputes, but also at the United States, which is, under its Pivot-to-Asia policy, beefing up its military preparedness in the region.
The warning in the form of a Cabinet (State Council) document came a day after Beijing lodged a protest with Washington after it spotted of a US surveillance aircraft over the Spratys – a series of South China Sea islands which China insists belong to it.
“We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked,” read the State Council document, demonstrating China’s growing confidence in its military prowess.
Widely known as the biyearly defence white paper, the document titled “China’s Military Strategy” outlined plans to expand the Chinese armed forces’ operational activities beyond what it regards as traditional boundaries, including its offshore territories.
The defence white paper – the ninth since the first such paper was published in 1998 — also accused unnamed foreign countries of “meddling” in the South China Sea. In the past, the document was much looked forward to by policy analysts and journalists alike not so much for its content as its hidden message or the warning between the lines. But this time the message was clear and we need not pore over the words or read between the lines in search of a hidden message. It is perspicuous and stern — and, simply put, it says China’s navy will expand its operations from offshore areas to the open seas, while its air force will shift its focus to include offensive operations in defence of China’s territory.
The white paper says the new military strategy, which it describes as China’s ‘maritime security struggle’ was designed to confront new security challenges, including the United States’ defence buildup in the region, Japan’s decision to overhaul its defence policy and “provocative actions” from neighbouring countries in the South China Sea.
Behave or be ready to face the ire of the fire-breathing dragon, the white paper seems to warn the United States, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam and other regional countries with whom China has burning territorial issues. Analysts say the tense situation could lead to a major regional or world war if negotiations are not started immediately to sort out the disputes in a peaceful manner.
China claims sovereignty over much the South China Sea, through which much of Japan’s ship-borne trade passes. The disputed island chain is believed to hold large oil and gas deposits. The tensions reached high-tide proportions recently after China, in a lightning move, built artificial islands and lighthouses in the Spratly archipelago. The US and China’s neighbours charge that the creation of artificial islands would enable Beijing to control the surrounding waters and airspace.
Given the many territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea where China and Japan are sabre rattling over the ownership of the disputed Diayu (to the Chinese)/Senkaku (to the Japanese) islands, countering China’s military threat has become a major defence headache for countries in the region.
Next week, the Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino will meet Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo during a visit aimed at bolstering defence ties between the two countries in view of the rising tensions in the South China Sea.
Abe, meanwhile, is seeking to enact legislation which will enable him to circumvent the constraints in the country’s pacific constitution and deploy Japanese soldiers for overseas military activities. If the bills being debated in the National Diet (parliament) are passed, Japan could be dragged into action in the South China Sea in support of US forces.
China’s latest defence white paper has created more than a ripple in the United States, where Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has instructed his staff to come up with ways in which Washington could deal with the China threat. China’s new defence strategy is expected to dominate the discussions at this weekend’s Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore. Attending the international defence conference will be US Defence Secretary Carter and Adm. Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
China’s official news agency Xinhua in a commentary, described the document as proof of China’s commitment to peace and its promise to improve military transparency to the highest degree.
“As many military experts would agree, laying bare its strategic intentions represents a very bold move for a country which has pledged to be more transparent about its military capabilities and war preparedness,” Xinhua said.
It charged that the Western media were seeking to play up the ill-founded notion that China would extend its military reach possibly to the detriment of regional stability. The commentary said the Western media should be reminded that China was entitled to adjust its military strategy in accordance with the latest developments that may pose a security threat, since the same was happening everywhere.
“Unlike world powers that adopt preemptive military strategies, emphasise preventive intervention and take the initiative in attacks, China takes a strikingly different path by following the principles of defence, self-defence and post-emptive strikes,” the commentary said.
But the question that looms large is: Will China, which relies heavily on a peaceful and stable international environment to sustain its economic growth, start a war that will spell doom to the whole world?
Unlikely. China is taking rapid measures aimed at reaching markets in every nook and corner of the world as fast as possible. It is building a network of highways across Central Asia, South Asia and Eastern Europe, reviving the ancient silk road. Parallel to the Silk Road Economic Belt – as this network of roads and oil pipelines is called – will be its maritime silk road, which passes through Sri Lanka’s Hambantota harbour, among other Asian ports. These mega infrastructure projects which are being funded by the newly set up Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) indicate that China’s objective is to promote its trade through world peace.
This is why China is facilitating secret peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and applying pressure on Pakistan to contribute to the peace process. Pakistan was promised US$ 4.8 billion in aid during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Islamabad.
World peace is in China’s interest, but the white paper seems to indicate that this peace won’t come at the cost of China’s national interest.
The way forward is peace talks between China and the countries with which it has territorial disputes. The United Nations can play a key role. Unfortunately, there is little movement in the direction of peace. Don’t they say conflict prevention is better than conflict resolution?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on May 29, 2015)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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