When Wen Jiabao visited Japan as Chinese premier in 2007, he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to make the East China Sea an area of “peace, co-operation and friendship”. Following suit, his successor Li Keqiang used an almost identical phrase about the South China Sea last October when he met the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei.
Despite the rhetoric about harmonious seas, countries from Vietnam and the Philippines to Japan and the US are increasingly critical of what they see as aggressive Chinese behaviour in the region.
In a recent speech at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, Chuck Hagel, US defence secretary, said what many southeast Asian countries believe but are wary of articulating too forcefully out of fears about Chinese retaliation: “China has called the South China Sea ‘a sea of peace, friendship, and co-operation’ and that’s what it should be. But in recent months, China has undertaken destabilising, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.”
From Manila to Washington, experts are trying to answer what Rory Medcalf, an Asia security expert at the Lowy Institute, describes as the “billion dollar question”: why is China taking a more assertive stance over territorial claims in the South China Sea that have, in most cases, existed for decades?
Where some see an emerging power flexing its new naval muscles, others view a bolder ambition to push the US navy out of the western Pacific where it has been dominant since the second world war. The tensions are mounting at a pace that worries everyone from military planners in the Asia-Pacific region to multinational retailers and global energy companies.
In the latest example of friction, scores of Chinese and Vietnamese naval, coast guard and fishing vessels are playing a dangerous game of maritime chicken near the disputed Paracel Islands after China infuriated Vietnam by starting to drill for hydrocarbons. The spat has also sparked deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam that forced factories supplying everyone from Apple to Adidas to temporarily halt production.
“It is still very serious, not only for Vietnam, but also for the region and the world,” said Chi Vinh Nguyen, Vietnam’s deputy defence minister. “They violated international laws when they placed the oil rig in our exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.”
Hanoi is mulling taking China to international court, following Manila, which has seen relations with Beijing plummet since Chinese ships wrested control of a Scarborough Shoal reef from the Philippines in April 2012 after a tense month-long stand-off.
In his new book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert Kaplan says there is “nothing unusually aggressive” about China’s actions given its geography and aim to prevent foreign powers taking advantage as they did in the past two centuries. “The fact that it seeks to dominate an adjacent sea crowded with smaller and much weaker powers, where there is possibly a plenitude of oil and natural gas, is altogether natural,” he concludes.
China dismisses the view it is raising tensions. At the Shangri-La dialogue, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, a top Chinese officer, accused Mr Hagel and Mr Abe – who gave a highly critical speech on China – of teaming up to provoke Beijing.
The US accepts that the Chinese military will play a bigger regional role as it grows. But General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said China was using its military muscle in a “provocative” way that would complicate the search for diplomatic solutions.
“We had discussions just two years ago that regional powers?.?.?.?would not use military force or the military instrument of power in order to pressurise what is rightly a diplomatic issue and that dynamic has changed, so now there is military power being used to pressurise the diplomacy,” he said in a joint interview.
Just this year, Chinese warships have tried to block Philippine boats from resupplying a ship called the Sierra Madre that is lodged on the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed Spratly Islands. Manila has also accused Beijing of breaching a 2002 regional code of conduct by reclaiming land at Johnson South, another reef in the Spratlys, for the possible construction of a runway. There have also been reports that China wants to turn nearby Fiery Cross Reef into an artificial island that would help it to project power in the South China Sea and beyond into the Pacific.
China argues that Hanoi and Manila are being hypocritical, saying they have breached the code of conduct, or drilled in waters claimed by China. Tommy Koh, a widely respected former Singaporean ambassador to the US and maritime law expert, points out that none of the six claimant nations in the South China Sea have adhered to the letter of the law of the code of conduct.
Some think China is responding to what it sees as growing US interference in its back yard. During the Bush administration, the US was so preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan that many Asian nations worried it was losing sight of China as its navy and coastguard grew.
In 2010, the US signalled a shift. Speaking in Hanoi, Hillary Clinton, then Barack Obama’s secretary of state, declared the South China Sea was in the US “national interest” – a remark that infuriated China, coming just months after Beijing had called the waters one of its “core” interests.
Two years later, Leon Panetta, then US defence secretary, told Asian defence ministers in Singapore that the Pentagon would boost its presence in the Pacific as part of a “pivot” to Asia. En route home, he flew to Vietnam, becoming the first Pentagon chief to visit the country in decades, and signalling to China that US-Vietnam relations were warming. Washington has since signed deals with Australia and the Philippines to base troops, planes and ships in those countries on a rotational basis.
Chris Johnson, a former Central Intelligence Agency China expert at CSIS, said: “From a strategic or military operational point of view, China looks around and from the Japanese islands down to the Philippines they see this net of US alliances and other defence arrangements that box them in.”
He argued China was responding to more than the “pivot”. It decided in the mid-1990s to focus on Taiwan instead of the South China Sea, where it had been building infrastructure on places such as Mischief Reef. But since the 2008 election of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan, ties with Taipei have sharply improved, allowing China to focus on its maritime claims.
In 2012, Hu Jintao, then Chinese president, gave a strong hint of the future when he announced in a major speech that the Communist party would “build China into a maritime power” – in what was the first time the country had declared itself a maritime power in 500 years. Towards that aim, China is creating a “blue water” navy that can operate far from its shores, and particularly beyond the “first island chain” that separates the South China, East China and Yellow seas from the Pacific.
“Chinese leaders believe strongly that as a rising great power they should have a sphere of influence in Asia, much like the US has maintained in the western hemisphere since its 19th-century articulation of the Monroe Doctrine,” said Paul Haenle, head of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.
Many capitals worry that China will ignore international rules as it expands its sphere of influence. They point to the “nine-dash line” – a marking on Chinese maps that encloses most of the South China Sea, suggesting that China claims most of the waters, which critics say would contravene the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea [Unclos].
Gen Wang said the line was created in 1948 after the Paracels and Spratlys were returned to China following the Cairo and Potsdam declarations. He said China discovered them more than 2,000 years ago and that their sovereignty had not been contested until the 1970s when energy resources were discovered in the South China Sea.
While critics such as Jay Batongbacal at the University of the Philippines describe that view as “really misleading” (Unclos does not recognise historical claims to waters), Gen Wang’s explanation highlights that China does not want to be bound by an international system developed when it was a weak country.
“It is naive to believe that a strong China will accept the conventional definition of what parts of the sea around it are under its jurisdiction,” Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, said in March.
While this view is uncomfortable listening for China’s neighbours, it poses a particular dilemma for the US, as it balances the various strands of its broad relationship with Beijing. In 2012, Manila was disappointed that US ships did not appear to help its treaty ally during the Scarborough Shoal incident. Mr Johnson said the outcome signalled that the US would not match rhetoric with action and reinforced the view in China that Mr Obama was “fundamentally weak”.
“Scarborough Shoal has changed hands for the first time in 20 plus years?.?.?.?and there has been no reaction. That definitely gives people in the region pause,” said Mr Johnson.
Some experts think China has been emboldened by the perception that the Obama administration would not risk a conflict with China over the South China Sea, and that only a conflict between China and Japan, Washington’s key ally in Asia, would trigger US military action. “I would agree that that will be the case under this US president, but we’ll see what happens under a new US president in 2017,” said Mr Haenle. “Chinese actions and behaviour over the next two years will impact how fast and how far the pendulum will swing in the other direction.”
Some American officials think China’s assertive behaviour will push its neighbours closer to the US, but other observers are less sanguine given China’s pivotal role as a trading partner for Asean. Asked whether China was sending Vietnam more into the US orbit, Gen Nguyen said: “I don’t think so. We are standing alone?.?.?.?we don’t stand on one side or the other side.”
General Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnam’s defence minister, stressed that Hanoi would stay independent. But he said it was considering allowing foreign ships to use facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, a strategic deep-water port, which would also help US operations in the South China Sea.
Mr Medcalf thinks the jury is out on whether China has miscalculated, but adds that “China cannot be certain that it is not hurting itself” with its assertive actions.
Either way, says Mr Johnson, the US needs urgently to “re-arm our toolkit” to meet the challenges from China. “Relying on the other team to consistently score own goals is not a strategy. That is wishful thinking.”
美国国防部长查克?哈格尔(Chuck Hagel)最近在新加坡香格里拉对话(Shangri-La Dialogue)上发表演讲时，说出了许多东南亚国家由于担心中国报复而不敢过于激烈表达的心中所想：“中国已将南中国海称为‘和平之海、友谊之海、合作之海’，实际也理应如此。但近几个月来，中国采取了破坏稳定的单方面行动，对南中国海提出声索主张。”
从马尼拉到华盛顿，专家们都在努力回答一个问题：为什么中国现在对南中国海的领土主张采取更强硬的姿态，而这些主张多数已经存在数十年？这个问题被澳大利亚罗维国际政策学院(Lowy Institute)亚洲安全事务专家罗里?梅德卡夫(Rory Medcalf)形容为“价值亿万美元的问题”。
“形势依然十分严峻，不仅对越南，对整个地区和全世界都是如此。”越南国防部副部长阮志咏(Nguyen Chi Vinh)说，“他们在我们的专属经济区和大陆架搭建钻井平台时，已经违反了国际法。”
罗伯特?卡普兰(Robert Kaplan)在自己的新作《亚洲火药桶：南中国海问题和太平洋安定局面的终结》(Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific)中写道，从中国的地理位置以及目标——阻止外国势力像过去200年那样利用自己——来看，中国的行为“毫无异常强硬之处”。他得出结论：“它寻求在那片近海占据主导地位再自然不过，那里都是小国和弱国，而且可能存在大量石油和天然气。”
就在今年，中国军舰曾试图阻止菲律宾船只给一艘名为马德雷山号(Sierra Madre)的军舰提供补给，这艘军舰搁浅在斯普拉特利群岛（Spratly Islands，中国称南沙群岛）的第二托马斯礁（Second Thomas Shoal，中国称仁爱礁）。菲律宾政府还谴责中国政府在约翰逊南礁（Johnson South，斯普拉特利群岛的另一座岛礁，中国称赤瓜礁）填海造陆，可能要建造飞机跑道，违背了2002年的区域行为准则。还有报道称中国想围绕永暑礁(Fiery Cross Reef)造一座人造岛屿，以便在南中国海部署军力，进而深入太平洋。
有些人认为，中国觉得美国在自己后院插手越来越严重，它是在对此作出回应。小布什(George W Bush)政府期间，美国专注于伊拉克和阿富汗，以至于许多亚洲国家担心它忽略了中国日益壮大的海军和海警队伍。
2010年，美国发出了转变的信号。时任巴拉克?奥巴马(Barack Obama)政府国务卿的希拉里?克林顿(Hillary Clinton)在河内发表讲话，宣称美国在南中国海也有“国家利益”，这番言论激怒了中国，就在几个月前，中国政府刚刚称这片水域是自己“核心”利益之一。
他认为中国的反应不止是针对美国的“重返亚洲”。中国在20世纪90年代中期决定将注意力放在台湾，而不是南中国海，此前中国一直在美济礁(Mischief Reef)等地建造基础设施。但自从2008年马英九(Ma Ying-jeou)当选台湾总统，中国政府与台北方面的关系大幅改善，令中国政府得以关注自己的领海主张。
北京智库清华-卡内基全球政策中心(Carnegie-Tsinghua Center)主任韩磊(Paul Haenle)说：“中国领导人坚信作为一个正在崛起的大国，中国理应在亚洲拥有势力范围，就像美国自19世纪发表‘门罗主义’(Monroe Doctrine)后在西半球所保持的势力范围。”
许多国家担心中国在扩张势力范围过程中会忽视国际规则。他们的矛头对准了“九段线”，它是中国在地图上画出的边界线，将南中国海大部分海域圈了进来，暗示中国对南中国海大部分海域拥有主权，批评者认为这违反了《联合国海洋法公约》(UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Unclos)。
菲律宾大学(University of the Philippines)的杰伊?巴汤巴卡(Jay Batongbacal)等批评家形容上述观点为“完全误导”（《联合国海洋法公约》不承认对海洋领土的历史性主张），但王冠中的解释凸显出中国不想受制于自己身为弱国时形成的国际体系。
新加坡国父李光耀(Lee Kuan Yew)在今年3月时曾表示：“如果认为中国强大后，会接受对于周边海域哪些部分属于其管辖范围的常规界定，那就是单纯幼稚。”
越南国防部长冯光青(Phung Quang Thanh)强调，越南政府会坚持独立的立场。但他也表示越南正考虑允许外国船只使用战略深水港金兰湾(Cam Ranh Bay)的设施，这同样会有助于美国在南中国海的活动。
IHS Maritime研究中国海军的专家Gary Li表示，一个重要变化是，辅助中国海军执行远洋任务的补给舰的数量有所增加。