On September 7, Japanese coast guard officials detained the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler after it rammed into two Japanese coast guard ships. The captain of the trawler was detained and faced charges that could have sent him to prison for up to three years. The incident set off a high-profile showdown between Beijing and Tokyo: the Chinese government threatened to withdraw from discussions over the East China Sea gas field and suspend ministerial-level contacts, organized demonstrations outside Japanese diplomatic missions in China, imposed an embargo on the shipment of rare earth metals to Japan, and detained four Japanese citizens for allegedly videotaping military targets in Hebei Province. Japan finally succumbed to the pressure and released the captain in late September.
Many analysts have pointed to the incident as proof that Beijing has adopted a more aggressive stance toward its regional rivals. But Chinese behavior in the South China, East China, and Yellow Seas over the past several decades reveals a longstanding pattern of bullying and outright threats. As China has struggled to expand its maritime boundaries, assert sovereignty over disputed islands and vast maritime resources, and enhance its naval capabilities to counter U.S. Navy dominance in the Pacific, it has never been reluctant to use force or coercion. This long history of aggression suggests that the United States will have to be firm and proactive in countering China's expanding self-proclaimed zone of influence if it hopes to keep Beijing from dominating the coastal seas of the western Pacific.
China has been most aggressive in the South China Sea, where it claims a number of disputed territories. In 1974, taking advantage of Washington's preoccupation with leaving Vietnam, China invaded the Paracel Islands -- which were then under South Vietnamese control -- beginning an illegal occupation that continues today. Over the years, China has increased its military presence on the islands, building a military airfield and an intelligence monitoring facility that can be used for operations in the South China Sea.
Chinese aggression against Vietnam has continued in recent years, much of it meant to dominate the regional fishing trade. For example, in January 2005, Chinese naval vessels shot and killed nine Vietnamese fishermen inside Vietnamese waters. In 2009, Chinese military forces seized a total of 17 Vietnamese fishing boats and their 210 crew members. Then, in April 2010, China issued a unilateral fishing ban for the South China Sea in an effort to gain control over the sea's dwindling fish stocks. Vietnamese fishermen have made their living in these waters for centuries, and Hanoi views Beijing's heavy-handed policies as a serious violation of Vietnamese sovereignty. China has also resorted to economic coercion -- it has threatened both British Petroleum, in 2007, and Exxon Mobil, in 2008, with the loss of business opportunities in mainland China if the companies did not end their joint ventures with Vietnam in the South China Sea.
Chinese aggression has not been limited to Vietnam. In 1995, China occupied Mischief Reef, an islet located only 130 miles from the Philippines' Palawan Island and strategically situated astride the Palawan Strait, one of Asia's most important sea-lanes. Despite repeated Filipino requests to withdraw, China has continued its illegal military buildup in the reef; Chinese naval forces there could be used to disrupt maritime traffic passing through the Malacca and Singapore Straits to the Philippines and northern Asia.
Chinese ships and aircraft have also interfered with U.S. ships and aircraft in and over the South China Sea many times. One of the most noteworthy incidents came in April 2001, when a Chinese F-8 fighter collided with a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane, forcing the U.S. aircraft to make an emergency landing at the Lingshui airfield. The crew was detained for more than two weeks before being released. More recently, in March 2009, five Chinese vessels -- three government ships and two small merchant ships -- harassed the U.S.S. Impeccable in the South China Sea, approximately 75 nautical miles from Hainan Island. The merchant ships intentionally stopped in front of the Impeccable, forcing it to make an emergency "all stop" to avoid a collision. Just a few months later, two Chinese fishing trawlers harassed the U.S.S. Victorious in a similar incident. It appears that Beijing is now using civilian vessels as proxies to advance its strategy of denying access to its coastal seas.
Beijing is sensitive to any rhetoric from Washington about Chinese maritime policies. In July 2010, China conducted an unprecedented military exercise in the South China Sea, involving ships and aircraft from all three of its fleets. This came after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated earlier that month at the ASEAN Regional Forum that "the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea." Clearly, Beijing considers the South China Sea a vital square in its geopolitical chessboard. In fact, last March, Beijing announced that the sea was now a "core interest" for China -- a position previously reserved only for Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan.
Beijing's claims over Taiwan are the underlying factor in Chinese policy toward the East China Sea. Not only does China consider Taiwan to be its sovereign territory but it has also passed legislation that asserts its authority to "enact laws and regulations relating to transit passage of foreign vessels and aircraft" through the Taiwan Strait. This law violates the international law of the sea, which allows for the freedom of navigation and overflight through the strait. In the mid-1990s, China conducted a series of military exercises off the Taiwanese coast in an effort to dissuade the independence movement and to intimidate the electorate from voting for Kuomintang party candidates in the March 1996 Taiwanese election.
China has also reacted aggressively to the U.S. presence in the Yellow Sea over the past decade. In 2001, a Chinese Jianheu III-class frigate confronted the U.S.N.S. Bowditch, which was legally conducting a routine military survey in the Yellow Sea, and ordered the unarmed ship to leave the Chinese exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an area of sea over which a state claims rights of exploration and exploitation of resources. In 2009, Chinese vessels once again harassed a U.S. surveillance ship in the Yellow Sea.
In July 2010, China objected to a planned U.S.-South Korean military exercise in the Yellow Sea, which was organized as a response to North Korea's sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010. Beijing criticized the participation of the U.S.S. George Washington, arguing that deploying an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea would be provocative and a threat to Chinese national security -- even though the U.S. carrier had conducted operations in the Yellow Sea earlier in the year without incident. Ultimately, the U.S. Navy went through with the exercise but without deploying the George Washington to the Yellow Sea. The decision turned out to be a major political victory for China's strategy of denying outside powers access to its surrounding waters. Moreover, rather than acknowledge the United States' gesture, Beijing conducted a live-fire naval exercise of its own in the Yellow Sea. To date, the George Washington has not returned to the Yellow Sea.
This type of appeasement is not only unproductive; it unnecessarily short sells the capabilities and reach of U.S. naval forces. As Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) has observed, only the United States has "both the stature and the national power" to confront China's "obvious imbalance of power" in the South China Sea. Yet to date, U.S. efforts have been feeble at best -- Washington has made a number of statements emphasizing the importance of freedom of navigation but done little to demonstrate U.S. resolve. If the United States is to reassert its role in the Pacific and counter China's growing dominance, it must increase its naval presence in the region and be prepared to demonstrate U.S. support for its regional partners with action, not words. To quote a Chinese proverb: talk does not make rice.