Control near seas

The incident in the South China Sea earlier this month between the US and Chinese naval vessels did not arise out of a misjudgement on either side. It is a reflection of the unfolding contest between the American forward military presence in the Western Pacific and the Chinese desire to dominate its near seas. As the US missile cruiser Cowpens tailed China's new aircraft carrier, Liaoning, in the South China Sea, a ship accompanying the carrier moved right in front of the Cowpens in an attempt to make it stop. The captain of the American vessel had to swerve sharply to avoid a collision.

The game of chicken between US and Chinese naval and air forces will continue as Beijing flexes its new military muscle and Washington signals its resolve to stay put. The first known incident occurred in 2009, when Chinese naval vessels confronted the US surveillance ship Impeccable that was on a routine surveillance mission near the Hainan island. Since then, the Chinese navy's capabilities have grown and the Chinese political leadership's will to assert the nation's maritime rights has deepened.

The message from Beijing is that if the US wants to sustain its historic military dominance over the East China Sea, Yellow Sea and the South China Sea, it must be prepared for continuous tension with the PLA Navy. And if Washington does not like the heat, it should cease its military operations in Beijing's near seas. The US is not ready to do this, not now at least.

The Cowpens might have had to change course to avoid a collision with the PLA ship, but the US is beefing up its naval presence in the Western Pacific as part of its pivot to Asia announced by President Barack Obama in 2012.

SAIL FAR SEAS

Even as it seeks to control its near seas, China is determined to expand its naval presence in the "far seas". This is what great powers have always done — sanitise your neighbourhood against foreign military presence and increase your strategic influence in distant theatres. As China's economic interests become global and dispersed, the PLA Navy has begun to transform itself into a genuine bluewater force with the necessary reach, endurance and skills to operate far from its national shores. This month marks five years of unbroken Chinese naval operations in the Gulf of Aden. Since December 2008, China has dispatched task forces to the Arabian Sea to participate in the anti-piracy activities.

According to a leading US naval expert, Andrew Erickson, "anti-piracy operations have sharpened the Far Seas operational capacity of Chinese PLAN crewmen, Special Forces soldiers, naval aviators, and various surface platforms deployed off Somalia". They have also helped PLAN learn the crafts of at-sea replenishment for its naval task forces and create logistical networks to support the extended deployments away from the homeland.

In the words of the Chinese newspaper Global Times, the forces participating in this mission over the last five years have been transformed from "maritime rookies into confident sea dogs".

(UN)MAKE ALLIANCES

China's maritime rise is not all about military technical capabilities. It is about aligning naval power with political purposes. Although the PLAN is some distance away from mastering the naval operational arts, it has benefited immensely from a civilian leadership that has developed an effective maritime strategy.

Central to this has been the focus on alliances, both positive and negative. In the far seas, China is building special political relationships and deepening military partnerships with key countries in the Indo-Pacific littoral. In the near seas, Beijing's emphasis is on loosening the traditional US alliances and preventing its Asian neighbours from developing a united front against China. As part of this strategy, Beijing has focused on isolating Japan, stoking American ambiguities and probing the cleavage between Tokyo and Seoul.

It is also developing a differentiated approach to the Southeast Asian neighbours. It acts rough with the Philippines but offers Vietnam a productive bilateral engagement. Manila and Hanoi are the main disputants of Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea. China is also embracing those ASEAN countries that don't have a territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Above all, Beijing is warning Washington that any US intervention on behalf of its allies against China would be costly; at the same time, Beijing is teasing Washington with the idea of building a "new type of great power relationship" — or a mutual accommodation with America on Chinese terms.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express'.

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