By Yu Runze, Sina English
The following is excerpted from an article in Foreign Policy Magazine, which is seemingly suggesting that China forgo its patience in the South China Sea to take a preemptive action when facing competition.
China and Vietnam clashed militarily in 1974. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it sure resonates. Back then, China grabbed the Xisha Islands from the Vietnamese seizure.
Now, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has announced plans to station a military garrison at Sansha City, a newly founded city on Yongxing Island in the Xishas.
Formally established on July 24, Sansha will act as China's administrative center for the Xisha and Nansha and Zhongsha Islands and the adjoining waters.
Unlike in 1974, however, Chinese leaders are doing so now when peacetime diplomacy seemingly offers them a better chance to prevail without fighting. It can be called "small-stick diplomacy" -- gunboat diplomacy with no overt display of gunboats. Because small-stick diplomacy takes time, it involves accumulating facts on the ground -- like Sansha -- and convincing others it's pointless to challenge those facts.
Although Washington takes no official stance on the maritime disputes, it is naturally sympathetic to the concerned countries. Some, like the Philippines, are treaty allies, while successive U.S. administrations have courted friendly ties with Vietnam.
Chinese leaders thus may believe they must act now or forever lose the opportunity to cement their virtual control of South China Sea.
China's motives mostly involve averting superpower encirclement which has influenced Chinese strategy. By the late 1970s, Beijing had come to believe that the Soviet Union was pursuing a "dumbbell strategy" designed to entrench the Soviet navy as the dominant force in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. The Strait of Malacca was the bar connecting the two theaters.
Beijing may also view the 2007 U.S. maritime strategy -- the official U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard statement on how the sea services see the strategic environment and intend to manage it -- as a throwback to Moscow's dumbbell strategy, predicated as it is on preserving and extending American primacy in the Western Pacific and the greater Indian Ocean.
Chinese strategists fret continually about American encirclement, especially as the United States "pivots" to Asia. Washington has announced plans to "rebalance" the U.S. Navy, shifting about 60 percent of fleet assets to the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. Beijing may have concluded that patient diplomacy will forfeit its destiny in the South China Sea. In Chinese eyes, it's better to act now -- and preempt the competition.