China persists in employing a variety of tactics to coerce Taiwan, its maritime neighbors and put more pressure on Japan, a panel of experts agreed last week.
Nowhere is that more visible than Beijing’s “persistent and flexible presence” from its maritime militia, Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy. It is a maritime force that also keeps open the Malacca Straits, a vital passageway for its energy imports, as well as backing up its territorial claims far from its shores and extending its reach into the Indian Ocean and Africa, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies China Power Project, said on Thursday.
In addition to its maritime forces, China has expanded the capability of its artificial island network in the South China Sea. The installations are now capable of handling patrol aircraft, fighters and strategic bombers as well as anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. The expansion allows the PLA “to develop operating concepts… they could use further north” to intimidate Tokyo and raise new threats to U.S. bases on Guam, she said.
Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said some South East Asian nations, already operating at a quality and numbers disadvantage with China on law enforcement and naval vessels.
They “could not match what China has” when Beijing was only employing its coast guard or maritime militia in these disputes. In a confrontation with the Chinese under those conditions, a South East Asian navy and coast guard would likely “turn tail and run.”
“Modernization is moving at a snail’s pace” in these nations’ coast guards and navies, he said. Because the security needs vary widely, there is little or no coordination among neighbors on buying together, setting common needs, developing interoperable capability and a general reluctance to spend money in this area. They also don’t want to risk provoking China — militarily or economically.
Maritime domain awareness must be the building block in responding to China’s assertiveness, Hideshi Tokuchi, of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, said. Tokyo does not distinguish between Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea or what it is doing in North Asia — from intimidation of civilian fishermen to insisting on specious claims to islands in the East China Sea.
From that point of view and geography, “Taiwan is more important than before” because it is in the connecting position between the two bodies of water. Its security concerns “should not be ignored” with strike aircraft from the mainland constantly circling the island and causing scrambles of fighters and periodic threats of invasion.
Glaser said despite its military moves and sometimes heated rhetoric China was not looking for a war with anyone in the Indo-Pacific.
“There has been some pushback” against China, surprisingly enough it came from Europe,
Richard Heydarian, a fellow at ADR-Stratbase Institute, said
Acknowledging France and Great Britain joining the United States in freedom of navigation operations around the artificial islands was new, he warned that those missions “alone could be counterproductive.” In Beijing, they could be dismissed as “empty tactics” because they “are not robust enough to deter” the Chinese from beefing up their military presence on the reclaimed lands or extending their reach to reefs and rocks further out or to the north.
Complicating matters is the behavior of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “meek” and “humble” approach to China in its territorial dispute, despite an international arbitration panel’s supporting Manila’s claims, he said.
This has caused a split between the country’s military, “with its constitutional responsibility to protect Philippine sovereignty” and the president’s “leaning to China.” Signs of this include his allowing PLAN naval vessels to make port calls and military aircraft to fly into bases without treaty or much formal notice.
Further complicating matters in the Philippines is Duterte’s periodic bashing of the United States, that throws into question American use of naval and air bases. At the same time, the Philippine military has more closely embraced Washington to counter China and is seeking to expand exercises and training assistance.
While a way ahead would include a “negotiated Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, Heydarian said for the countries in the region to accept such a deal it would have to include a freeze on militarization, reclamation and naval exercises.
“Otherwise, what’s the point,” he said.