Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Beijing Prepared to go to War over a Fishing Incident?


Is Beijing Prepared to go to War over a Fishing Incident?

After Beijing unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea last month, to include the disputed Tokyo-controlled islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, the reaction by regional neighbors and the U.S. was swift. But with each action, a subsequent and escalating reaction has been triggered. China’s first patrol of the area was quickly met by a scrambling of Japanese fighter jets. The Pentagon then tested the airspace by flying two of its B-52s from Guam into the ADIZ. The U.S. flights were then followed by incursions from both Japanese and South Korean military planes, and again Beijing sent fighter jets into the zone. In light of the incursions, and to regain some face, Beijing quickly ordered its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the South China Sea. The Liaoning, a reconditioned Ukrainian vessel, was escorted by two destroyers and two frigates, supposedly to carry out “scientific research, tests, and military drills”. While the Liaoning was unarmed and still has a long way to go before it can be declared “combat-ready”, China’s neighbors, especially the Philippines, perceived other motives. The most serious incident to date occurred on December 5th, when the U.S. Navy sent the Cowpens, a U.S. guided missile cruiser, into the disputed waters, perhaps to test the Chinese commitment to freedom of navigation, show solidarity with its regional allies, or as a check on any further aggression. This prompted a Chinese warship to place itself in the path of the Cowpens and forced the U.S. vessel to take evasive action to avoid a collision. This latest skirmish is the most significant since 2009, when five Chinese ships harassed a U.S. oceanographic research vessel, the USS Impeccable, also in the South China Sea.

Perhaps in this new year, as in 2009, things will cool off for a while. Beijing can back off, claiming to have stood up to the powerful American military. Maybe Beijing’s forceful action will placate its fervent nationalists, and the Chinese can claim to have regained their “face” among the international community. Washington has shown, by confronting Beijing, its support for freedom of navigation and willingness to stand behind its allies in the region.

Yet at the start of the new year, Beijing is again showing no signs of backing down.  On January 1, authorities in the provincial city of Sansha, an island south of Hainan, conducted a joint drill involving 14 ships and 190 personnel from various border patrol and law enforcement agencies.  The drill was consistent with Beijing’s announcement that it is beefing up its police powers in the disputed South China Sea, and follows new rules requiring foreign fishermen to seek permission to fish or survey within waters claimed by China.  The new rules took effect this month, although they were passed by Hainan’s provincial legislature in late November.  According to the new rules, permission must be obtained from unnamed “relevant departments” under China’s Cabinet, and any violation could result in the confiscation of catches and fishing equipment along with fines of up to 500,000 yuan ($83,000) for violators.

Further escalation, especially over a minor fishing incident, is not in the interest of China. The Chinese navy, despite standing up to the lone Cowpens, is ill-prepared for combat. The Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which was being surveyed by the Cowpens at the time of the incident, was undergoing its sixth test in high waters. As China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning is still incapable of launching and recovering of fixed-wing aircraft at sea – an effort which is expected to take several more years.

Despite ever-increasing amounts of spending going toward defense (some $119 billion) resulting in the world’s second largest navy, the U.S. spent nearly six times more on defense than China last year, so Beijing has a lot of catching up to do. Recent Chinese efforts include the building of new destroyers, frigates and submarines, and a recent reorganization of its coast guard to streamline its command structure. The Chinese navy has also been ordered to accelerate training and technical upgrades to boost its war-fighting readiness. More broadly, there is growing doubt surrounding China’s actual fighting capabilities in some sections of the Chinese military, foreign diplomatic corps, and U.S. academia. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think tank, concluded that despite the rapid buildup of China’s armed force capabilities, China remains “at least two decades behind the United States in terms of military technology and capability”.

China’s latest aggression is also backfiring badly by fueling an arms race among its neighbors. Whatever soft power Beijing had cultivated in the region is quickly evaporating as other claimants to the East and South China Seas such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines beef up their defense capabilities, often with U.S. support. Despite the Japanese postwar Constitution pledge to “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”, Tokyo announced last month a boost in its military spending in coming years, reversing a decade-long decline, in order to purchase early-warning planes, beach-assault vehicles, troop-carrying aircraft, and unarmed surveillance drones. Japan lags far behind China in terms of numbers – it has just one-tenth the number of men in uniform, four times fewer combat aircraft, and its fleet is about half the size of China’s in terms of tonnage. But when it comes to training and technology, the key elements in modern warfare, the Japanese easily surpass the Chinese. With its advantages in technology and its disciplined, professional forces, several military analysts believe Japan would prevail over China even without direct U.S. intervention.

Japan is not the only country gearing up for battle. In Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in December up to $18 million in military assistance, including five fast patrol-boats that will be given to the Vietnamese Coast Guard. Vietnam claims the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands, which were ceded to Taiwan by Japan under the Treaty of Taipei, but parts of which are also claimed by Beijing, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines. In 1979, China and Vietnam fought a bloody border war and in 1988 a naval battle close to disputed islands left 70 Vietnamese sailors dead. Since then, disputes over fishing rights in the region have triggered occasional violent incidents.

Following the visit to Vietnam, Kerry visited long-time ally the Philippines and warned China against any move to declare an air defense zone in the South China Sea. Kerry also announced that Washington had committed $40 million towards strengthening Manila’s sea defense capabilities. Both sides are also in the final stages of hammering out a deal to allow an increase in U.S. troops, aircraft and ships passing through the Philippines, following the closure of U.S. bases in 1992. Beijing disputes Manila’s ownership of the Scarborough Shoal, where earlier this year Chinese government vessels took control. Manila subsequently took the matter up with a United Nations tribunal.

With the United States regaining its “pivot” to Asia after a dozen years of war in Afghanistan, and regional players like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines beefing up their defense capabilities, the risk of confrontation among navies in the East and South China Seas is increasing. Despite China’s rapid growth in military spending and capability, the real danger to China may lie in it’s own calculation of strength. A Beijing-based defense attaché from a NATO country recently commented on the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), “Our assessment is they are nowhere near as effective as they think they are”. If he is right, and should Beijing seek to continue its escalation of aggression in the East and South China Sea, sparks could fly from the recently beefed up military of Japan, Vietnam or the Philippines and propel China into a small-scale war which they are not prepared to win. Since much of the territory in the East and South China Seas is claimed by several nations, there is the risk that alliances against Beijing could form, and they may call on the U.S. for support.

What is needed among military leaders in the region is consistent and frequent dialogue in order to avoid miscalculation and escalation — especially over a minor fishing incident. Realistic assumptions of military strength also need to be undertaken. While Beijing methodically tests the limits of its neighbors’ patience, it cannot afford to ignite and lose a war at a time when domestic pressures are strong and the nation still retains nagging memories of the century of shame and humiliation (1840s to 1949) at the hands of the Japanese and Western powers. If Beijing’s greatest concern is indeed continuity for the Chinese Communist Party and its greatest fear is domestic instability – its should think twice before continuing to escalate tensions that may lead to a war in which loss would be tragic and spell the end for the current administration. Perhaps it is time for the famously patient Chinese to revisit Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “bide time and keep a low profile”.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666