Last update 6/26/2011 9:40:00 AM (GMT+7)

Peaceful rise?

VietNamNet Bridge - China, circa 21st century, likes to portray itself as a “soft power” whose “peaceful rise” should not threaten the world.

That portrayal becomes suspect each time Chinese military activities in the East Sea raise the hackles of its neighbors with claims over some of the areas.

Earlier this week Beijing reassured the world that it did not intend to use force in staking its territorial claim. What the other claimants see, however, is not so much force but stealth, with facilities being constructed and markers installed on disputed territory when the Chinese think no one is looking, and with the activities occasionally backed by military power.

What happened to maintaining the status quo under the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea?

Several Chinese journalists and foreign observers in China have told me that Beijing’s diplomatic and military objectives are not always in sync.

With the approaching leadership change in China, its military is flexing its muscles, in the process undoing much of the country’s diplomatic gains in recent years.

During their 60th National Day celebrations, Chinese officials in Beijing emphasized that they were not interested in becoming a superpower and that their military capability was way behind that of the Americans.

They stressed that theirs is still a developing country with millions of poor people, and where there is a widening gap that must be narrowed between urban and rural incomes. So they would rather pour much-needed resources into economic development and poverty alleviation.

Any military upgrading they were undertaking, they said, was one that would make their defense capability commensurate to the requirements of what at the time was the world’s third largest economy.

Now that China has become the second largest economy, it is trying to develop the J-20 aircraft with stealth capability and preparing to deploy within the year its first aircraft carrier.

Acquired from the Ukraine and refurbished, the ship is no USS Carl Vinson. But an aircraft carrier would considerably raise China’s naval presence in its own backyard.

Compared with the world’s major oceans, the South China Sea is a pretty small backyard. But Chinese behavior in the region is being closely watched by countries outside Asia for hints of whether the economic powerhouse would be a responsible member of the community of nations.

Chinese activities are making countries in the region reinforce alliances with the United States. In a recent visit to Singapore, outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised that his government would guard shipping lanes in the region, deploy high-tech surveillance gadgets and weaponry, and generally expand its military presence to protect its Asian allies even in cyberspace. New littoral combat ships or LCS, light enough to patrol shallow coastal waters, will soon be deployed in the region.

If China wants to project soft power, it cannot afford to be seen as the neighborhood bully.

The “domestic flight routing map” of China Southern Airlines, the mainland’s largest carrier, features a map of China plus an inset of “islands in the East Sea.”

The dots of land are enclosed by a demarcation line, drawn along the contours of the coastlines of China’s neighbors in the region, leaving each neighbor only a narrow strip of territorial waters on the map.

A diplomat from a country with a keen interest in the region told me that China has made no formal claim over those islands in the South China Sea, unlike the other claimant countries (us included) that have filed claims with the United Nations.

Chinese officials have said they need not file a claim over what has always been their territory. Where that territorial claim is based is murky.

If Beijing is invoking prehistoric land bridges that once connected China to much of the rest of Asia, it should also be claiming the Philippines as part of Chinese territory. But Portuguese explorers and Spanish conquistadors beat the Chinese in staking a claim over our archipelago. In the annals of foreign conquest, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Claims over those spits of coral and rock dotting the East Sea should also be laid down in detail. As the foreign diplomat pointed out to me, one tiny reef that is recognized as part of a particular country’s territory has its own 200-mile exclusive economic zone. What happens when this encroaches into another country’s EEZ?

The provision on the EEZ is laid down under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China is a signatory, and laying claim over the entire Spratly island chain can give it an EEZ encompassing the entire South China Sea.

The United States has not ratified the UNCLOS, apparently fearing that the treaty could hamper its freedom of navigation in international waters. But US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked their Senate to ratify the UNCLOS within the year.

The foreign diplomat told me that for clarity, it must be emphasized that a country’s territorial waters extend only 12 miles from shore.

What the EEZ grants countries with a shoreline, the diplomat explained, is exclusive jurisdiction over the extraction and utilization of natural resources within that zone.

When rival claimants such as the Philippines protest Chinese activities in disputed areas, China’s initial reaction seems to be, “Make us.”

It’s not the proper reaction from a soft power, and it does not support avowals of a nation’s peaceful rise.

Ana Marie Pamintuan (Philstar)