Every country in the region has its own map of the sea, which ranks high among the world's busiest shipping lanes. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines all lay claim to the tiny island groups there, and more important, a share of the natural wealth (eight billion to 28 billion barrels of oil) believed to lie beneath the surrounding waters.
China's claim is by far the most expansive, encompassing islands hundreds of kilometres from its shores and thus nearly the entire South China Sea. The decades-old claim, and the disputes with its neighbours that it has fed, took on greater urgency last year when Chinese officials reportedly told their U.S. counterparts that the entire sea was now considered a “core national interest” – language previously reserved for red-line territorial issues such as Taiwan and Tibet, over which Beijing has expressed a willingness to go to war.
The statement provoked a hasty response from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who flew to Hanoi to deliver the message that the U.S. considered freedom of navigation in these waters to be a “national interest” of its own.
The hub of China's rapid naval buildup is Yalong Bay, a deepwater port on the south coast of Hainan, a tropical island in the South China Sea better known for drawing holidaymakers from colder parts of the country. A 900-kilometre stretch of coast has been converted into China's most advanced naval base, the primary launching point for its fleet of submarines, which has been growing at a pace of three a year since 1995. Hainan is also the hub of China's aircraft-carrier building activity.
Though China's leaders speak of the need for “harmonious” oceans and of using their new naval capabilities for fighting piracy and providing humanitarian assistance, its neighbours are clearly anxious. Over the next five years, regional navies will invest about $60-billion – more than the combined spending of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, excluding the U.S. – on upgrading their own surface forces and submarine fleets.
No country is more concerned about China's rapid naval buildup than the region's former dominant sea power, Japan. Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have yet to recover from a September showdown sparked by the collision of a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coast guard boat. After China revealed the lengths it was willing to go to in the dispute, tightening exports of a key resource crucial to the Japanese high-tech industry, Japan was forced into a humiliating retreat that hasn't been forgotten.
Last month, Japan's Self-Defence Forces released a new white paper outlining a major shift in policy. The army will slash its spending on battle tanks and invest instead in new submarines and warships. The military's sharp edge will now point south and west, toward the waters between it and China.
“Rising China generally, and its naval modernization specifically, is posing an uncommon and unprecedented challenge for the region and beyond,” said Yuki Asaba, associate professor of international relations at Yamaguchi Prefectural University in Japan. “Japan needs to make it clear that further provocations will not be tolerated.”
The fishing-boat incident occurred near an uninhabited island chain in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, controlled by Japan but claimed by China. And it was far from an isolated event. The most dramatic statement of China's growing naval reach came last April, when a flotilla of two submarines and eight destroyers cruised between Japanese islands on their way to the deeper Pacific. When two Japanese destroyers were assigned to shadow them, a Chinese helicopter buzzed within 100 metres of them.
Gen. Xu, the ex-PLA officer, warned that Japan and others needed to get used to the new pecking order in the region. “When a country gets more powerful, it takes on more responsibility in the world. As China gets more powerful, its troops and ships will go out farther,” he said.
“The neighbours, especially those who bullied us in history, should calm down and adapt better to China's rise.”
Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's China correspondent.