With urban warfare in Syria, a worsening financial crisis plus a stock market crash in Europe and new warnings of recession in the United States, this is a big news day, but when people look back on this day in history, they may well say the most consequential story in today’s news comes from China. As the Voice of America reports, China is dramatically stepping up in the South China Sea, moving to establish a permanent municipal government and station troops on islands bitterly disputed with Vietnam.
In a report published Sunday, China’s official Xinhua news agency says 1,100 residents of several islands known in Chinese as Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha have elected 45 deputies to a municipal people’s congress. The islands are part of the new city called Sansha, and the council will be based on an island that China refers to as Yongxing, known in English as Woody Island.
Xinhua also says China’s Central Military Commission has approved the formation of a Sansha garrison command responsible for “national defense” and “military operations.”
The new steps follow Chinese announcements that oil drilling and tourist trips are starting in the disputed area. Since 1974, when Chinese forces won a battle with Vietnam, the islands have been effectively under Chinese control. Vietnam has not given up its claims, and has protested every assertion of Chinese sovereignty over the islands and the waters around them.
China’s escalation is clearly part of its response to the new American policy in the region. It changes nothing legally and the military consequences of a small Chinese force on the islands are small.
But the move is a clear sign that China has no plans to give grounds on the dispute. This step means that China cannot abandon its position without a severe humiliation; it’s a kind of iron guarantee to hardcore nationalists that the government will not back down.
The United States for many years has been committed to the position that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea need to be settled by negotiations among the various parties concerned in a multilateral forum. China insists on bilateral negotiations with each of the countries with whom it has overlapping claims.
Nationalist opinion in China is white hot over this issue; public opinion from Korea and Japan down to the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia is also engaged. China seems to be putting down a marker: if neighboring countries push China, China will push back.
This is just part of the picture. Some reports from the region suggest that China is orchestrating a diplomatic and economic counteroffensive. The calculation seems to be that the United States, distracted by an election campaign, worried about Syria and other Middle Eastern problems, and facing the “fiscal cliff” along with defense budget cuts will be unable to make an effective response.
America’s new Pacific policy is getting its first real test. It will not the be last.