A China power play in choppy waters

A China power play in choppy waters

A passing phase or a dangerous and permanent strategic challenge to Asian stability for years to come? That, in a nutshell, is the debate about China's current behaviour in South China Sea, which appears almost deliberately designed to provoke most of the region's nations.

But even if no categorical answer can be provided to this question, it is clear that China has crossed a fundamental psychological barrier.

Beijing is no longer engaged in just a reactive or theoretical assertion of its rights to territories and waters; China now sets the strategic agenda with pre-emptive actions which create irreversible facts on the ground.

And China will continue doing so unless the United States and its allies - both in Asia and elsewhere - respond in a more coherent manner.

When the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was privately told in 2010 by senior Chinese officials that they considered Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea as China's "core interest", she instantly understood the huge significance of these words; that's why, notwithstanding China's fury, Washington promptly leaked details of the episode to the media, in the hope that this would either force Beijing to clarify its demands, or shut up.

The Chinese did neither, but most other governments - including, occasionally, the US itself - chose to substitute realities with wishful thinking by offering various explanations as to why China had suddenly changed its approach to territorial disputes.

Just a "mistake" by some "over-zealous" officials was one interpretation favoured by China analysts.

A determination not to lose out in the race for offshore gas, oil or fishery resources was another popular explanation for Beijing's behaviour.

And, as the pace of confrontations in the South China Sea and East China Sea intensified, a new explanation became popular: that all the sea incidents were due to some alleged bureaucratic competition between various Chinese law-enforcement agencies which supposedly did not know what they were doing.

It's now time to discard all these self-serving interpretations and accept the evidence that is staring us in the face: that China's policy is consistent, and follows a precise strategic objective.

Beijing is not interested in fishing or energy resources; these will in any case belong to China once the South China Sea effectively becomes a Chinese lake.

Instead, the main aim is to impose an exclusive area of Chinese strategic pre-eminence or control over the region, pushing the US Navy as far as possible away from China's shores while reminding neighbouring states that the United States cannot be relied upon to come to their defence.

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