Enter The Dragon

It is that time of the year again, whenever that time may be in a calendar year, but it is the same time Malaysians, those in the Peninsula in particular, have been complaining year after year about since at least 1994.  Every year, haze from neighbouring Indonesia would engulf the Peninsula, and at times even Sarawak, up to the point of suffocating Malaysians. Every year a complaint is lodged, but nothing seems to be seriously done by the Indonesian government to put a stop to this.  This, in my opinion, is akin to bullying of one’s neighbour.

A few weeks ago I tweeted about the need for the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Royal Malaysian Air Force to boost its power projection capabilities in light of China’s increasing bullying of the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal issue.  What began as a simple issue over a fishing vessel, turned into a standoff between the lightly-armed Philippines Navy against the might of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN).  And from the 10th April 2012 up until this posting was made, the whole issue was an impasse.  The Philippines government has announced yesterday that it would be pulling back its vessels from the shoal because of bad weather – another sign of a weak navy, unable to withstand weather conditions.

Interestingly, a senior Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) replied to my tweet saying that China should not be seen as a threat, but rather an opportunity.  With a population of over 1.3 billion, China, an emerging economic powerhouse, should be seen as an opportunity.  However, as the United States and the European powers have reduced defence spending, China’s has increased 12 percent over the past decade.  China is investing heavily in “asymmetric capabilities” designed to thwart America’s interference in its interests over the East and South China Seas.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), by 2035, China’s defence spending could overtake that of America’s.

While China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has an active force of 2.3 million, China’s real military strength lies elsewhere.  As part of the “asymmetric capabilities” China is acquiring A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) capabilities.  In 1996, we saw the US Navy sending two of its carrier battle groups to Taiwan when the PLA started lobbing missiles at islands off Taiwan.  By 2020, China aims to deter American carriers and aircraft from operating within what is known as the “First Island Chain” – a perimeter that runs down from the Aleutians, the north of Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo.  In 2005, the “Taiwan Anti-Secession Law” was passed in China, which commits the latter to a military response should Taiwan declare independence.  While the US maintains “strategic ambiguity” on the event that secession happens, Jia Xiudong of the China Institute of International Studies reflects the policy of China:

“We don’t have any ambiguity. We will use whatever means we have to prevent it from happening.”

If so, what has happened to the rhetorical agreements made during the various ASEAN engagements with China?  Let us remember one thing:  while the Chinese politicians do all the talking on behalf of the government of China, the People’s Liberation Army IS NOT formally part of the state.  It is responsible to the Communist Party and is run by the Central Military Commission, not the Ministry of Defence.  Therefore, a better understanding of the  loyalty and priorities of the Chinese military is very much needed.  While Chinese ministers have time and again promised a “peaceful rise,” we see its bullying of neighbours occur on a frequent basis.  Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, have all been physically bullied by China’s military.  While diplomats from both sides tried to water down the situation at the Scarborough Shoals, men of the Chinese military amped up bellicose language.  The state-run media warned that “war could break out with the Philippines if the island nation did not give up its claims on disputed rocks and reefs in the South China Sea.”

Lest we forget, back in a meeting between ASEAN and China in 2010, when faced with a barrage of complaints about his country’s behaviour in the region, its Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said:

China is a big country, and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”

Last week, our Defence Minister cancelled a visit to the RMN outpost at Terumbu Layang-Layang, where a popular dive resort is also located, because of strong objections by China.

You decide if China really is an opportunity, or a threat.  But I have this to say – running down our military as done by certain politicians, is not helping the situation at all.