The country’s intensifying efforts to redraw maritime borders have its neighbors, and the U.S., fearing war. But does the aggression reflect a government growing in power—or one facing a crisis of legitimacy?
In the tranquil harbors that dot the coastline of Palawan, a sword-shaped island in the western Philippines, the ferry boats are crowded with commuters traveling back and forth between sleepy townships, and with vendors bearing fresh produce. On Sundays, they fill with people dressed up for church. From nearby berths, fishermen set out to sea for days at a time aboard their bancas, the simple, low-slung catamarans they have favored for generations.
Just inland from the shore, narrow, crowded streets thrum with the put-put of motorized rickshaws. The signs on the small shops and restaurants that line them are almost as likely to be in Korean, Vietnamese, or Chinese as in the Filipino language Tagalog.
The shore-hugging seas of this part of the world, from the southern tip of the Korean peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago, have always served as a kind of open freeway for culture, trade, and ceaseless migration. In past times, historians of the region went so far as to call the long waterway that encompasses both the East China Sea and the South China Sea the Mediterranean of East Asia. But more recently, it has begun to earn more-ominous comparisons to another part of Europe, a fragmented region that was the famous trigger for the First World War: the Balkans. Continue reading
After the worst anti-China violence for 15 years took place in Vietnam this month, it took China’s propaganda authorities nearly two days to work out how the story should be handled publicly. However, this was not a simple information blackout. The 48-hour gap between the start of the riots and their eventual presentation to the country’s mass audiences exemplified some of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sophisticated techniques for managing information during fast-breaking foreign affairs incidents in the Internet era. Far from seizing on incidents at sea to demonstrate China’s strength to a domestic audience, the official line played down China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and emphasized Vietnamese efforts to stop the riots, effectively de-coupling the violence from the issue that sparked them. This indicated that, rather than trying to appease popular nationalism, China’s leaders were in fact reluctant to appear aggressive in front of their own people. 
By framing the issue in this way, China’s media authoritiescultivated a measured “rational patriotism” in support of the country’s territorial claims. In contrast to the 2012 Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, when Beijing appears to have encouraged nationalist outrage to increase its leverage in the dispute,  during the recent incident the Party-state was determined to limit popular participation in the issue, thus maximizing its ability to control the escalation of the situation, a cornerstone of the high-level policy of “unifying” the defense of its maritime claims with the maintenance of regional stability (Shijie Zhishi [World Affairs], 2011). Continue reading
Speakers: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Shen Dingli, Vice Dean of the Institute of International Affairs, Fudan University
Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Simon Tay, Chairman, Singapore Institute of International Affairs
Producers: Jeremy Sherlick
April 21, 2014
The East and South China Seas are the scene of escalating territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, including Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The tensions, shaped by China’s growing assertiveness, have fueled concerns over armed conflict and raised questions about Washington’s security commitments in its strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.
“Maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas are a pressing issue for the United States, China, and much of the rest of the world,” says Elizabeth Economy, CFR’s Director for Asia Studies. The region is rich in natural resources, home to many of the world’s most dynamic economies, and an important global trade route for energy supplies and other goods. Continue reading
English: Paracel Island map Source: Adapted from image from CIA World Factbook vi:HÃ¬nh:ParacelIslands.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Forty years on, the battle has enduring lessons for Vietnam’s naval
By Ngo Minh Tri and Koh Swee Lean Collin
January 23, 2014
On January 16, 1974, the Republic of Vietnam Navy (RVN) discovered the presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Crescent Group in the western Paracel Islands, which was held by South Vietnam. This was an unexpected development, because notwithstanding the reduced U.S. military assistance to Saigon after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, and subsequent reduction of South Vietnamese garrisons on the islands, the Chinese had not taken unilateral actions to subvert the status quo – by which the Amphitrite Group in the eastern Paracels and the Crescent Group were respectively under Chinese and South Vietnamese control.
By Trefor Moss May 30, 2012
Defense leaders from around Southeast Asia are meeting in Phnom Penh this week for the 6th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM). The theme of the get together – “Enhancing ASEAN Unity for a Harmonized and Secure Community” – smacks of doublespeak: unity and harmony within ASEAN are sorely lacking at the moment, and no-one really thinks the ministerial meeting is going to rediscover them.
In the anarchy of the international arena, a club like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ought to be a reassuring place to be. The organization gives its ten members – small or medium-sized players in geopolitical terms – the opportunity to close ranks when dealing with the greater powers, and to speak with one voice loud enough to be heard in Beijing, Washington and any other place that needs to listen.
Unfortunately, ASEAN doesn’t work like that: individualism swiftly trumps collectivism whenever contentious issues arise.
In particular, ASEAN has a China problem. Ask the ten members about China, and you’ll get a kaleidoscope of opinions about what that country represents. Some ASEAN countries are very much pro-China: their own economic development is tied closely to Beijing’s, and they are comfortable with the political implications of their China connections. Others are cooler on relations with Beijing: they balance a wariness of Chinese influence with the obvious benefits of a healthy trading relationship. And finally, there are those that feel threatened by China and regard themselves as targets (or at least potential targets) of Chinese assertiveness.
Unity on the question of how to handle China has therefore eluded ASEAN. And given the association’s nature, this is unsurprising: neutrality and non-intervention, not unity and collectivism, are ASEAN’s most cherished principles.
May 14, 2012 By James R. Holmes
Last month, I wrote a column for Global Times in which I observed that a dominant Chinese Navy lets China’s leadership deploy unarmed surveillance and law-enforcement vessels as it implements policy in the ongoing stand off at Scarborough Shoal. It can flourish a small, unprovocative seeming stick while holding the big stick – overwhelming naval firepower, and thus the option of escalating – in reserve.
That, I wrote, translates into “virtual coercion and deterrence” vis-à-vis lesser Asian powers. If weak states defy Beijing, they know what may come next. Global Times readers evidently interpreted this as my prophesying that Southeast Asian states will despair at the hopeless military mismatch in the South China Sea – and give in automatically and quickly during controversies like Scarborough Shoal.
Not so. Diplomacy and war are interactive enterprises. Both sides – not just the strong – get a vote. Manila refuses to vote Beijing’s way.
Military supremacy is no guarantee of victory in wartime, let alone in peacetime controversies. The strong boast advantages that bias the competition in their favor. But the weak still have options. Manila can hope to offset Beijing’s advantages, and it has every reason to try. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? China has been the weaker belligerent in every armed clash since the 19th century Opium Wars. It nevertheless came out on top in the most important struggles.
That the weak can vanquish the strong is an idea with a long pedigree. Roman dictator Quintus Fabius fought Hannibal – one of history’s foremost masters of war – to a standstill precisely by refusing to fight a decisive battle. Demurring let Fabius – celebrated as “the Delayer” – marshal inexhaustible resources and manpower against Carthaginian invaders waging war on Rome’s turf.
Fabius bided his time until an opportune moment. Then he struck.
Similarly, sea power theorist Sir Julian Corbett advised naval commanders to wage “active defense” in unfavorable circumstances. Commanders of an outmatched fleet could play a Fabian waiting game, lurking near the stronger enemy fleet yet declining battle. In the meantime they could bring in reinforcements, seek alliances with friendly naval powers, or deploy various stratagems to wear down the enemy’s strength. Ultimately they might reverse the naval balance, letting them risk a sea fight – and win.