For reasons that are conceptually weak and militarily untenable, the top Chinese military decision making body—the Central Military Commission—took a surprising decision last Sunday to post about 1,200 PLA soldiers in the so-called Sansha City; a collection of a few huts on an island with an area of about 2.13 square kilometres in the Paracel group of islands located in the South China Sea. The nearest Chinese territory is Hainan Island, but that is about 350 kilometres away. The communication links are tenuous with a ship making a journey twice a month from the Chinese mainland to supply the residents with needed supplies in order to enable them to survive. Apart from the PLA soldiers, there are an estimated 613 residents on this barren patch of two square kilometres. According to Xinhua, the island has now taken the shape of a city; its infrastructure includes a small military airport, a seaport, roads, a clinic, a post office and an observatory. There are other small barren islands as well that will presumably be administered by the Sansha city ‘government’. Not unsurprisingly a small Chinese Communist Party unit was also established within the Municipal Office and this was telecast live by CCTV. As Xinhua reported, the attempt is to ‘safeguard China’s sovereignty.’
What has propelled the Chinese to undertake such a step? The reasons are not far to fathom. Having just got over the internal convulsions caused by the sacking of the Chinese Politbureau member Bo Xilai, the present Chinese leadership did not want to give the impression that it was ‘weak-kneed.’ It wanted to refurbish its nationalist credentials. At the same time, nothing better distracts the people from reports of financial scandals of leading members of the Party than to indulge in a bit of sabre rattling. Similarly, the incoming Party chief and President, Xi Jinping, could not afford to start his innings by being seen as a pushover who could not defend China’s national interests. The upshot may be that the present incumbent Hu Jintao, while giving up the State Presidency as well as the party leadership, may continue for some time more as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. This would lend the necessary stability to the smooth change-over expected at the 18th Party Congress.
China also wished to send a message to all other contenders in the South China Sea dispute that while it would wish for a diplomatic solution, it would react militarily to defend its position in the South China Sea. It also wanted to demonstrate that the United States would not necessarily militarily intervene in each and every occasion and that the countries of South East Asia might like to reconsider and keep this fact in mind. China has had some diplomatic success in this regard when at a recent meeting ASEAN members could not agree on a joint communiqué on this issue for the first time ever; thanks to Chinese obduracy.
The South China Sea is a huge area covering nearly 3.5 million square kilometres, where countries such as China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are in serious contention. At stake are huge under water oil reserves estimated at 28 billion barrels and nearly 20 t/cm of natural gas reserves, with the latter reportedly having the potential to rival the gas reserves of Qatar. In addition, the South China Sea is the main artery for significant maritime shipping. The main East Asian economic power houses—China, Japan and South Korea—are heavily dependent on the safety and security of the South China Sea- lanes. By establishing its static military presence on the Paracel group of islands, China wishes to reinforce its claims and ensure that the others are ousted from the region.
Nevertheless, this ‘forward’ policy has pitfalls all on its own as India discovered to its cost when it tried to do the same many decades ago in Ladakh. Firstly, China will find it extremely difficult to maintain the security of its garrison. It will have to deploy considerable elements of both naval and air power to ensure security, apart from the logistical nightmare. To satisfy nationalist sentiment at home based on tenuous military strategy is asking for trouble. Secondly, the other contenders will probably come even closer together and unite to oppose Chinese claims in the area and to that extent would welcome US presence and military help. Thirdly, such garrisons are totally exposed, militarily untenable and can be eliminated at one stroke. All that is needed is one laser guided missile fired from below the sea for the Chinese garrison to go up in smoke. They would never know which belligerent fired it. So against whom will the Chinese then retaliate?
It is still not too late for the Chinese to realise their folly and withdraw from these uninhabited islands and seek a peaceful solution in line with the UN Law of the Sea [UNCLOS]. Co-operation and goodwill of the South-East Asian nations and the international community far outweighs any purported advantage that China might gain in occupying these barren islands. For India, this is a splendid opportunity to wait and watch and not get embroiled in these quarrels. The more the Chinese ensnare themselves in the South China Sea disputes with other countries, the lesser will be their pressure on India along the Sino-Indian border. As the Chinese told India on 16 May 1959 in a Note Verbale, which had all the imprints of Mao’s thinking, ‘the enemy of the Chinese people lies in the east...China’s main attention and policy of struggle are directed to the east, to the Pacific region.’ And in a profound statement emphasized that ‘China will not be so foolish to antagonize [at the same time] the US in the east and India in the south-west.’ Herein lies India’s advantage.
RS KALHA is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs and Member, National Human Rights Commission [NHRC].