Whatever happened to the much-heralded Chinese policy of a “peaceful rise”? While the other great powers lauded the awakening giant for the emphasis it placed on “peaceful,” China’s smaller neighbors noted with increasing concern its single-minded focus on “rise.” In Asia, the reality is clear and stark: The operative term in the famous Chinese policy is in fact its unstoppable ascent to superpower status. Everything else, including “peacefulness,” comes second.
Consider the latest Chinese assertion of its absurd, sweeping, ahistorical claim to almost all of the South China Sea. Photographs taken from a Philippine Navy aircraft last Saturday showed that concrete blocks had been laid on Scarborough Shoal, the disputed area the Philippines call Panatag and which locals refer to as Bajo de Masinloc. (China calls it Huangyan.)
“We have… sighted concrete blocks inside the shoal which are a prelude to construction,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said at a budget hearing in Congress on Tuesday. What does that mean, Akbayan party-list Rep. Walden Bello asked. “Are these then moves to create a Chinese fortification on Philippine territory? Is this the meaning of these concrete blocks because this is similar to what they did to the Panganiban Reef [Mischief Reef] before?”
Gazmin replied: “If we follow history that is the direction.”
His reading of the new situation in Scarborough Shoal was shared by an expert in regional security studies. “If China starts building at Scarborough, then it is an occupation and, I believe, the most egregious violation yet of the 2002 Declaration [of Conduct] (DOC),” Singapore-based scholar Ian Storey said. “It is a very significant development indeed and one that will certainly add to tensions.”
The DOC is an agreement on maritime conduct reached between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China in 2002—at about the time the predecessors of China’s current leadership assumed office. It is nonbinding, to be sure, but it forms a key part of the commitments that China has offered to its neighbors and is meant to prepare the way for a comprehensive Code of Conduct. Construction at the disputed reef means the nature of China’s commitments is now at issue.
When the Asean leaders’ summit in Phnom Penh last year ended in a diplomatic fiasco, after China forced its regional ally Cambodia to disallow even the slightest mention of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea in the traditional closing communique, many observers thought that the unusual display of Chinese assertiveness was a function of the leadership transition in Beijing, then ongoing. The assumption was that playing to nationalist elements in China was a necessary but temporary means for the emerging leaders to consolidate power.
The placing of some 30 concrete blocks inside Scarborough Shoal should now disabuse anyone of these geopolitical illusions. The leaders in Beijing are heavily invested in China’s grandiose claim to almost all of the South China Sea; they will be loathe to dilute any part of that claim.
It will be interesting to hear what the Chinese foreign ministry will say about this latest episode in adventurism. Beijing has been scathing about the Philippine attempt to seek legal remedy from a United Nations tribunal, calling Manila’s suit provocative. What does that make of China’s creeping occupation of territory that lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone—and is at least 650 miles from China?
The Chinese claim to almost all of the South China Sea is based on the so-called nine-dotted line. Chinese scholars have labored to show that this 20th-century document has deep historical roots, but to risible effect. That is one reason why, despite all the rhetoric about a “peaceful rise” in the world, China will resort to furtive construction followed by outright occupation: Their claim, a not-so-great wall of fabrication and imagination, will not withstand close scrutiny.