Chinese hawks pose regional threat: report

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This aerial view of what China calls "Sansha city" on an island in the disputed Hoang Sa (Paracel) islands. Vietnam has protested China's move last week to build a military garrison on the islands, saying it has sufficient legal and historical evidence to affirm its sovereignty over both the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos. Photo: AFP

A Japanese white paper has warned that Chinese hawks gaining sway in the East Sea dispute could pose a security risk and that East Asia is worried about Beijing's military expansion.

The annual defense white paper, released on July 31, said some were concerned that the relationship between the People's Liberation Army and the Communist Party were "getting complex."

The report comes as Chinese senior officers, intelligence advisers and maritime agency chiefs have been more outspoken in calling for Beijing to take a harder stance on regional territorial disputes.

It noted China's rapid military build-up, particularly of its navy, with a defense budget that has risen 30-fold in the past 24 years.

"It is not that caution has been rising. But it is true that there exists a certain sense of caution not only in Japan but across East Asia regarding which way China is headed," Reuters quoted Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto as saying.

Analysts say that China has been employing a more assertive stance on disputes in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea, in recent weeks. The sea encompasses major global shipping routes and lies atop what are believed to be rich reserves of oil and gas.

On June 23, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) invited foreign petroleum companies to jointly develop nine blocks in the East Sea, all of which are located well inside Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and not in the disputed area.

In another aggressive action, the Chinese Central Military Commission on July 19 decided to formally establish a "military command" of the so-called "Sansha City", based on Phu Lam (Woody) Island in the Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago. On July 21, the Chinese side held an election for the first tenure of the people's congress of the so-called "Sansha City."

On July 30, the People's Daily reported that authorities in "Sansha City" had decided to build 83 low-rent apartments for its residents.

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China has continued to appoint military officers at the newly-established garrison in the Paracels.

Vietnam's foreign ministry spokesman has said Vietnam opposes all these moves, arguing that they are serious violations of Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdiction and are illegal according to international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Not interested in weakness

Major General Zhu Chenghu of Beijing's National Defense University told the World Peace Forum in Beijing earlier last month that it was "unreasonable and illegal" for the Philippines and Vietnam to claim historically Chinese territory.

Other officials who want a stronger stance on these issues include Cui Liru, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing think-tank with close ties to Chinese intelligence services, and Major General Luo Yuan, a retired army officer known as a provocative hard-liner, according to Reuters.

Commenting on China's possible political-military shift, Dean Cheng, a China security expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the People's Liberation Army (PLA) does not act on its own.

"However, the announcement of regular PLA Navy patrols and garrisoning of islands suggests that those who would pursue a more military response may be gaining," he told Vietweek.

However, despite recent assertiveness and Chinese military and security officials becoming more vocal, some analysts say that Chinese policy is not entirely controlled by hawks.

"Given that all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee are civilians, their perceptions of the South China Sea issue are clearly more comprehensive than the generals," said Sun Yun, a Washington-based China security policy expert and a former analysis with the International Crisis Group in Beijing.

Sun said China could have done better by reexamining the legitimacy of its claims, clarifying its positions and explaining them to the Chinese public and potentially resort to the UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanism.

"However, it is not politically feasible because it would bring questions and challenges to the government's ability to defend its own territory, hence its legitimacy. That's why Chinese media would [say] the South China Sea problem "˜has no solution' at this point," she told Vietweek.

Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute, said those attempting to counter China also needed to exercise caution and avoid aggression.

"China is overreaching but all should remain calm. Ganging up on her is only going to bolster the China hawks and feed the dogs of war," Valencia said.

"Let cooler heads prevail. This is a trap for China, but it will drag in everybody else."

War games

The US regularly stages war games with its allies in the South China Sea. China considers the games acts of intimidation and provocation.

In a recent exercise this April some 7,000 American and Philippine troops deployed in a simulated amphibious assault to recapture an island supposedly "taken by militants."

"Jumping from rubber boats as they hit the shore, the commandos engaged in a mock firefight, making their way inch by inch from the beach to a navy facility to rescue "˜hostages' and recapture the base," said an MSNBC report.

In another exercise earlier that month, "commando teams rappelled from US helicopters and landed from rubber boats in a mock assault to retake an oil rig in northern Palawan, 11 miles off the town of El Nido on the South China Sea," according to MSNBC.

"The annual war games come under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, part of a web of security alliances the United States built in the Asia-Pacific region during the Cold War," said the report.

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