Analysts: Country's bold move spurred by 'U.S. inaction.'
(Photo: Gao Yi, AP)
BEIJING 27/03/2013– The appearance of a Chinese navy flotilla at an island chain 1,120 miles from its home shores is a clear sign that the new Communist regime is moving to enforce its claims to the entire South China Sea, experts said Wednesday.
James Shoal is 50 miles from the coast of Malaysia, one of several countries that have appealed to the United States for help in countering China's aggressive attempt to seize 1 million square miles of fishing and energy resources.
The Chinese military drills in the southernmost part of the sea show that the Obama administration's "Asia Pivot," which the White House said will refocus U.S. defense assets from the Middle East to East Asia, has produced few results for countries such as the Philippines and Japan, says Michael Auslin, an East Asia specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.
"We're losing credibility with our allies and friends by not getting involved," he says. "China has interpreted U.S. inaction as a green light to go forward."
The flotilla includes China's most advanced amphibious landing ship. Sailors on the ship's helicopter deck declared their loyalty to the ruling Communist Party and vowed to "struggle arduously to realize the dream of a powerful nation," said Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency.
In 2010, China planted a monument on the shoal declaring it the Chinese territory of "Zengmu Reef." The act was part of China's claims to all islands, fishing grounds and energy resources in a sea shared also by Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. The South China Sea is also a major transit route for global shipping; half of all cargo in the world passes through the sea.
Malaysia says China's claims are bogus and merely an attempt to seize resources such as possible oil and gas deposits that are well within the internationally recognized coastal territory of Malaysia.
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit working in conflict prevention, said the naval exercise is consistent with China's "shift from a land-focused power to a maritime power."
The strategy has been pushed over the past two years, during which China has grown more assertive over its maritime claims, she said.
Gary Li, a senior analyst with IHS Fairplay in London, described the flotilla mission "a surprisingly strong message" from the new Chinese leadership recently installed under President Xi Jinping.
"It is not just a few ships here and there, but a crack amphibious landing ship carrying marines and hovercraft and backed by some of the best escort ships in the fleet," he told the South China Morning Post, adding that jet fighters had also been used to cover the task force.
"We've never seen anything like this that far south in terms of quantity or quality."
Auslin said the United States should respond in its longstanding role of ensuring the sea is not controlled by any single nation. He said the White House should increase the frequency of U.S. warship formations in the area to show China "we're going to be present." It would also boost the confidence of allies that the U.S. is standing up to challenges from their mighty neighbor, he said.
The White House has said it wants all sides to settle their disputes peacefully through international legal structures. But in light of Chinese behavior that many in the region view as aggressive, that sends a message that the United States will not confront China, Auslin says.
China's behavior could undermine 100 years of U.S. policy that "might makes right" cannot prevail in sea lanes open to all, Auslin said.
"Do we want to see that environment change to where relations between countries are determined by the strongest? That's the 19th century world," he said.
MacLeod reported from Beijing; Dorell from McLean, Va.