South China Sea

Beijing goes mobile in the South China Sea

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Pepe Escobar
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warships

Martin Petty/Reuters

Originally published in RT on June 16, 2016

 


Not a day goes by without some sort of turmoil in the South China Sea. Let’s cut to the chase: war is not about to break out.

In a nutshell, the non-stop drama, as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) diplomats told me, is all about“escalation-management protocols.” Translation: how to prevent any unilateral outburst that could be interpreted as warlike.

Compounding the problem is that ASEAN can’t seem to manage its own internal protocols. This past Tuesday offered a graphic illustration, after a special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Yuxi. First ASEAN issued a communiqué. Then it retracted it. As much as that reflects internal dissent among the 10 nation group, it also happens to puncture the Pentagon myth of China’s “isolation”.

Meanwhile, a D-Day is approaching; the ruling, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, on a territorial dispute brought by the Philippines in 2013. The ruling should come by late July or early August. Even if – as expected – it goes against Beijing that still should not be reason to install an insurmountable ASEAN-China divide. 
Connie Rahakundini, president of the Indonesian Institute for Maritime Studies (IIMS), framed the question for Xinhua. There is an ‘ASEAN plus’ mechanism already in place – which is a sort of debate forum including China. And ASEAN is also establishing a code of conduct to prevent unilateral moves.

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The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. © U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate

Chinese spy ship ‘shadowing Stennis aircraft carrier’ as Japan, US & India hold joint drills

The problem with the case in The Hague is that the Philippines did not try to solve it bilaterally; off the record, ASEAN diplomats admit that would be the only solution.

So no wonder Beijing decided not to be a part of the arbitration procedure, and preemptively rejects whatever ruling (which is non-binding anyway), insisting the court has no jurisdiction. The Philippines case is about territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation; these are subject to general international law, not the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

All about positioning

At the recent Shangri-La dialogue, Beijing once again detailed its complex strategy in the South China Sea. PLA Major General Yunzhu Yao stressed that freedom of navigation for commercial ships in the South China Sea has not been challenged and would never be challenged. And she hit the heart of the matter; the US has not ratified UNCLOS, so it’s in no position to impose its interpretation of the treaty on any nation, in Asia or beyond.

Compare it to Rahkundini, speaking for ASEAN as a whole: "The United States actually has nothing to do in the South China Sea; moreover it does not ratify the UNCLOS. So it is not appropriate for the United States to meddle or, even worse, demonstrate military might there. The United States has to be wiser and fairer to see the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea."

Everyone knows this is not going to happen. On the contrary; the Obama administration and the Pentagon are engaged in all out meddling, deploying “freedom of navigation” operations. For his part new Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte very well knows that the arbitration, at best, might give him a better bargaining stance. But still he will have to negotiate with China. And Beijing knows exactly what Manila needs to soften the pill; massive Chinese investment.

Both China and the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, are signatories of UNCLOS. But steeped as it is in history, Beijing also stands by its 9-dash line map, with sovereign claims that reach as far as the Vietnamese coast and along Borneo. And yet even the Chinese map as well as the drive towards an aerial defense identification zone does not mean Beijing wants to imperil freedom of navigation in the South China Sea – as Washington insists. This is all about positioning.

Meet “mobile national sovereignty”

International law does not specifically forbid reclamation at sea. What China is applying is a quite audacious, self-described “blue soil” strategy. Vietnam, Malaysia and even the Philippines had been carrying out reclamation in the South China Sea for a while. China arrived later, but in full force – building airstrips, lighthouses, garrisons in neglected or abandoned islets in the Spratlys and the Paracels. Once again, this is all about energy; to harness an astonishing unexplored wealth of 10 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

In its search for energy, Beijing is focusing a significant part of its strategy on areas already identified, for instance, by PetroVietnam. And it’s using a game-changer: the HYSY 981 mobile deepwater drilling rig, which the chairman of CNOOC, Wang Yilin, describes as a “strategic weapon” that is part of China’s “mobile national sovereignty”.

President Xi Jinping has emphasized over and over again that China will not militarize any reclaimed land. Yet the Pentagon’s insistence on those innocuous “freedom of navigation” operations coupled with USAF overflights can only be interpreted as provocations leading to further militarization.

The Pentagon has never been accused of being geopolitically savvy. Their planners after all fail – or prefer to fail – to see that China’s island building, in the long run, is all about finding enough oil and gas to perform an “escape from Malacca”, a central plank of Beijing’s energy strategy. Beijing would rather have enough energy closer to home, in the South China Sea, than having its fleet of tankers at the mercy of the US Navy crossing the Strait of Malacca non-stop.

No one knows how the removal of the US weapons sale embargo on Vietnam will result in practice. In Southeast Asian cooperation terms, it might be useful to observe the actions of Singapore – that trade/services hub doubling as a US aircraft carrier parked by the Strait of Malacca. Singapore happens to perform a superb balancing act between Washington and Beijing. Russia, by the way, is also officially neutral on all matters South China Sea.

Japan protests Beijing’s warships approaching disputed islands in E. China Sea http://on.rt.com/7eyn 

China is the top trading partner of the overwhelming majority of Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia nations. It is a prominent member of the East Asia Summit. It is driving its own, Asian-based response to the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pet project; the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Beijing knows that the “principled security network” proposed by lame duck Pentagon head Ash Carter in Singapore has no chance whatsoever of becoming a Southeast Asian NATO. 
What this all means is that the notion of an “isolated” China does not even qualify as a bad joke told at a stuffy Council on Foreign Relations meeting.

And that brings us back to what happens after the arbitration in The Hague. Something very Asian; Beijing and Manila will sit down again and try to reach a deal, without ever bothering to refer to the ruling. Face will be saved on both sides. China will continue to go mobile – in search of all that oil and gas.

And count on the Pentagon to continue its meddling.


PepePepe Escobar  is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia Times Online. Born in Brazil, he's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of "Globalistan" (2007), "Red Zone Blues" (2007), "Obama does Globalistan" (2009) "Empire of Chaos" (2014),and "2030" (2015), all published by Nimble Books. 

Is China a House of Cards?

Xi Jinpenggc2smFrom the keyboard of Pepe Escobar
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Xi Jinpeng

Originally published in Sputnik on May 17, 2016

 


Let’s start by examining what the Dragon himself – President Xi Jinping – has to say about China being largely derided in influential Beltway circles as a House of Cards.

Xi has forcefully dismissed the notion that a House of Cards power struggle has been raging at the rarified heights of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Yet at the same time he’s adamant; “conspirators”, “careerists”, “cabals” and “cliques” are attempting to undermine the CCP from within.

Thus, with ironic/poetic justice, a 42-part series on corruption in China – titled In the Name of the People and financed by the Middle Kingdom’s top law enforcement agency – is bound to go live before the end of 2016, featuring a CCP stalwart as the bad guy (that’s a first). Call him the Chinese Frank Underwood.

This means that what Xi is saying – and acting — live will be mirrored on hundreds of millions of Chinese screens, pitting conflicting factions within the 88 million-member CCP. Xi’s war on corruption has produced a rash of severely disgruntled CCP officials – to put it mildly.

Xi not only is the Commander-in-Chief in the fight against corruption; he’s now Commander-in-Chief of China’s joint battle command center as well. He monitors a [Central Military Commission] Chairman Responsibility System as well as the central guard corps, which monitors the security of all other CCP heavyweights.

Add to these Xi’s status as CCP’s general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission, president of the national security commission and head of the top group for reform of the Chinese system, and a Harvard academic who refers to him as “the chairman of everything” does not seem to be that far off the mark. 

Yet even this awesome concentration of power does not mean that Xi is an unassailable deity. On the key drama – the state of the economy – it has emerged that in a recent interview by the People’s Daily with an anonymous “authoritative person”, printed on the front page and exposing deep economic divergence among the CCP leadership, the “authoritative person” in question was none other than Xi. 

He had to take to the key media read by anyone who’s anyone in China to press his point on how to fix China’s debt-ridden economy; low growth is OK, and the new normal; as for blind credit expansion/monetary easing, that’s not OK. Xi, once again, is adamant; it’s now or never to start a painful restructuring of the Chinese system.   

Beware the “nests of foreign spies”

Xi Jinping does wield astonishing power. There can’t be any other way. Imagine the man on top of a civilization-state of 5,000 years who needs, among myriad other crucial issues, to; tweak/manage an economic system that was successful for over 30 years but now needs to be upgraded; shift the system from export-led demand to domestic consumption; manage the aspirations – and broken dreams – of a vast working class including millions of newly unemployed; reorganize monster state-owned enterprises (SOEs); find ways to get rid of Himalayas of bad bank loans and “nonperforming” investments; downsize and at the same time vitally upgrade the Chinese military.

And if that was not enough, Beijing has to be fully alert 24/7 about all those non-stop Pentagon provocations – actual and rhetorical – centered in the South China Sea. 

Two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors are launched during a successful intercept test.

© FLICKR/ U.S. MISSILE DEFENSE AGENCY

You’ve got to be alert. Full time. All the time. And be alert at “foreign hostile forces” or, more plainly, “nests of foreign spies” who want you to be mired in chaos. Thus the new law on NGOs operating in China. There are too many — over 7,000. And the (hidden) agenda for quite a few – from NED to the Soros gang — is to try to promote pure, unadulterated color revolution, as difficult as that may be in ultra-regimented China.

Yet it worked in Brazil – a BRICS weak link. The CCP leadership has carefully – and silently – understood the Brazilian lesson, and is fully aware that Exceptionalistan would stop at nothing to slow down China’s already spectacular global reach. So if you’re a NGO operating in China, from now on you need to find an official Chinese sponsor and register with local police. 

Back to the Chinese economy, the mantra across multiple, powerful Beltway factions is that a crash is imminent. Once again; the House of Cards theme. 

China’s total debt is now a whopping 280% of GDP. That includes the 115% that apply to SOEs’ debts; in Japan, for instance, that SOE figure is only 31%. Yet what really matters is that only a maximum of 25% of Chinese SOEs’ debts will need to be restructured. 

Xi’s strategy is that the Goddess of the Market will turbo-charge those SOEs, not kill them. So forget about the CPP handing out control of the Chinese economy to companies that the CCP itself does not control. No wonder what’s left for US Big Capital’s spokespersons is to carp about a House of Cards.

All eyes on 2021

It’s never enough to remind everyone that absolutely everything that’s happening in China now is subordinated to Xi’s official target of achieving “a moderately prosperous society” (xiaokang shehui) by the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, in 2021.

That’s a mere five years from now. More long term, 2049, is the target of achieving a “socialist modernized society” (shehuizhuyi xiandaihua shehui) with a $30,000 GDP per capita; that should tie in with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

Chinese People's Liberation Army cadets shout as they take part in a bayonet drills at the PLA's Armoured Forces Engineering Academy Base, on the outskirts of Beijing, China, July 22, 2014

Beijing’s army of planners estimate that this overwhelming target is achievable if the Middle Kingdom is able to produce over 30% of global GDP by 2049; for comparison, that’s about 1 and ½ times more than the proportion currently produced by the US (and considering that the US does not manufacture much apart from weapons and infotech.) 

As breathtaking as this vision may be, it’s always reduced by the same old catastrophist Western “experts” to variations of Xi being the new Mao Zedong. That’s so pedestrian. The men – and the historical contexts – are radically diverse. Mao decided on a few core issues by himself – and left the rest to his underlings. The Little Helmsman Deng Xiaoping was a man of consensus. Xi decides by himself on virtually everything – but he does pay attention to some selected advisers. Examples include the Ministry of Trade, which first came up with the concept that developed into the New Silk Roads, and Liu He, the advisor who conceptualized Xi’s current economic strategy. 

The fact that Xi is now designated as the “core” (hexin) of the Beijing leadership is not such a big (Maoist) deal. The word in Beijing is that an assembly line of editors is now compiling a book of Xi thought (sixiang) that would make him as crucial as Mao as a contributor to Sino-Marxist theory. So what? Xi is a man in a rush, on a roll and with a mission – and 2021 is just around the corner. House of Cards? No; this looks more like a case of Xi landing a Full House on the table.  


PepePepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge (Nimble Books, 2007), and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).and "Empire of Chaos" (Nimble Books, 2014). His latest book is "2030", also by Nimble Books, out in December 2015. He currently lives between Paris and Bangkok. Follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pepe.escobar.77377

Patrolling the hood from (China) sea to shining sea

Off the keyboard of Pepe Escobar
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380255_Chinese-warships

Originally published in Asia Times on May 27, 2015

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If only Mad Men in real life were like Don Draper – channeling his true inner self, after many a rocky season, to finally click on “I’m OK, you’re OK.”

Instead, we have a bunch of (Pentagon) madmen provoking every major geostrategic competitor all at once.

The Masters of War at the self-described “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” Obama administration are now announcing they’re ready to dispatch military aircraft and ships within 18 kilometers of seven artificial islands China has built up in the Spratly Islands.

Beijing’s response, via the Global Times, couldn’t be other than There Will be War; “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea … The intensity of the conflict will be higher than what people usually think of as ‘friction’.”

According to Beijing, two lighthouses on Huayang Reef and Chigua Reef — sites of reclamation works — were built “to improve navigation safety in the South China Sea.”

There’s no evidence China will cease its island-building work even with U.S. warships hangin’ out in the naval hood. Will the U.S. Navy go heavy metal and unleash “friction” to prevent civilian Chinese vessels from moving around? Does the U.S. Navy expect Beijing to just roll over and collapse?

What the Global Times implies is that China will definitely strike back if the Americans come within 18 kilometers of the islands.

Beijing already has electronically jammed Global Hawk long-range surveillance drones spying on the Nansha Islands. And Beijing is contemplating setting up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea once the work on the seven artificial islands is completed.

This South China Sea exceptionalist adventurism could alarmingly get out of hand. Couple it with the “patrolling” of the Western Pacific – as the U.S. and Australia are about to be joined by re-militarizing Japan in their regular bi-annual war games. The result is a Shangri-La Dialogue – the regional security summit held every year in Singapore, starting this Friday — even hotter than usual. Assorted agent provocateurs better not mess with Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff, who will be the guest star of the show.

All about the Maritime Silk Road

The latest escalation happens just as Beijing releases it new Military White Paper outlining in detail a new defensive strategy — which is now, for all practical purposes, defensive/offensive in Full Spectrum AirSeaLandCyber Space mode (the full text is included here). Pentagon planners, eat your collective hearts out; the “pivoting to Asia” is about to meet its match.

Among the highlights, we now know China “will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked” – which is a blueprint for what may happen next in the South China Sea.

Beijing will be focused on “winning informationized local wars” (a whole lotta electronic jammin’ goin’ on).

And the PLA Navy will gradually shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to a mix of “offshore waters defense and open seas protection.” Welcome to the (China) sea to shining sea doctrine.

Zhang Yuguo, senior colonel with the general staff department of the PLA, clearly enjoyed himself at his press conference when he stressed, “Some countries adopt preemptive strategies, emphasizing preventive intervention and taking initiative in attack. Ours is totally different.” And then came the Sun Tzu-style clincher; “Being ‘active’ is only a kind of means and ‘defense’ is our fundamental purpose.”

For those who insist in not getting the message, the white paper is the graphic proof China is now positioning itself as an aspiring great sea power.

It’s genetic, really — as China displayed the world’s greatest naval fleet at least two centuries before Christopher Columbus, duly employed by the Ming dynasty to explore Asian, Indonesian archipelago, African and Middle Eastern shorelines.

And guess what they were up to then; “win-win” trade/commerce, allied with cultural interchange. Make business, not war. Centuries later, it’s all remixed in the New Silk Road(s), or One Belt, One Road project.

And don’t forget Urfa

Beijing’s strategy for the South China Sea has always been clear. Everyone – no discrimination — will have right of passage. All disputes – from oil and gas exploration to fishing rights — are to be solved bilaterally within the cadre of ASEAN. And the whole process has absolutely nothing to do with Washington.

The U.S. government insists the China nine-dash-line does not comply with international law. That’s risible; the line was actually dreamed up by the Chinese nationalists of the Kuomintang two years before the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Washington argues that implementation of the nine-dash-line will allow China to control navigation in the South China Sea. Once again, Beijing does not want control, but more business, which is already a fact, as 80% of commercial traffic is by Chinese vessels.

There’s no way Beijing will back down from bilateral negotiations inside ASEAN – as the South China Sea is a key element of the Maritime Silk Road. What Beijing wants is “win-win” deals with everyone, from Vietnam to Philippines, especially in terms of exploring all that submerged energy wealth.

As for Washington — as it is seen from Beijing – the paramount obsession is to remain the naval hegemon everywhere from the Western Pacific to the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean.

Cue to the white paper reminding everyone and his neighbor that the South China Sea is not an American lake, as much as the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea are not Japanese-American lakes, and the Indian Ocean is not an American Ocean.

There’s no contest. All these crucial developments were studied in detail early this week at the 11th round of the China-Russia strategic consultation in Moscow – when Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi, a very active, policy-making second foreign minister, sat face-to-face with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev.

As the Pentagon huffs and puffs, Beijing releases its no-nonsense military doctrine; the Russians and Chinese finesse their strategic partnership; and they get their act together for the crucial, upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Urfa this summer.

Expect the bunch of madmen to go bonkers. Oh yes, no more romantic sea cruises from now on.


Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge (Nimble Books, 2007), and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

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