Take A Breather

24 Aug

China vs. Japan In yet another glaring example of how pundits relish the opportunity to exploit discord, to create a marketable spectacle, James R. Holmes treats China’s garrisoning of the Paracels like a cage match.

In July, China’s East Sea Fleet conducted an exercise simulating an amphibious assault on the islands. China’s leaders are clearly thinking about the unthinkable. And with protesters taking to the streets to smash Japanese cars and attack sushi restaurants, their people may be behind them. So who would win the unlikely prospect of a clash of titans in the Pacific: China or Japan?

Fortunately, PM at The Duck of Minerva takes Holmes to task.

The conflict over Asia’s barren rocks may be as consequential to the prospects for peace as the ongoing dispute over a handful of settlements in the deserts of Palestine. Given that Japan’s other territorial dispute, over Dokdo/Takeshima with South Korea, has helped to nearly scuttle attempts at a Korean-Japanese rapprochement, there’s something important to be said about them. But using them as a springboard to write a 2012 version of Red Storm Rising isn’t the most productive use of analytical energy.

Not to discount military action entirely, I would ignore the urge to treat the fetish of preparedness and vigilance as a chance to stoke real tensions. I’ll say it again: East Asia is a very noisy place, but not necessarily a more violent one. But, why is it so much noisier now? Perhaps, democracy?

Former ambassador Christopher R. Hill argues that “…[domestic] pressures produce foreign-policy weakness.”

But, in the case of China’s ham-handedness in the South China Sea, domestic constituencies decrying “weakness” and demanding toughness from political leaders are a key factor. Among China’s 500 million Internet users, for example, one senses a palpable rise in nationalist sentiment, reflected in bitter criticism of official “weakness” in defending Chinese interests

China’s government is extremely sensitive to such attacks. If a Chinese blogger criticizes the government over its crackdown on Falun Gong, or supports Tibet’s opposition, the Internet police rush to the scene of the supposed crime. But if the blogosphere emits jingoistic calls for more raw materials, the government salutes and works harder to obtain them.

Domestic pressures have tied China in knots on other issues as well. Many international observers might forgive China its behavior in the South China Sea, given that many countries, large and small, have maritime disputes with neighbors. But China’s own constituencies, whether netizens or competing official institutions, have contributed to an international record that is earning China derision from small neighbors and great powers alike.

Yet, as Dennis J. Blasko and M. Taylor Fravel caution, “Beijing’s Sansha military garrison is more of an administrative move than an arms buildup in the South China Sea.

What, then, is the significance of the establishment of the Sansha garrison? First, from a military perspective, it is a minor development. It likely will not command any combat units nor will it result in a substantial increase in the Chinese forces in the South China Sea. Rather, it is designed to enhance coordination with the local government. Its importance is political, part of what the China Daily unabashedly described as China’s effort, “to display its sovereignty over the South China Sea.”

Second, because the PLA has maintained a military presence on the features it holds in the South China Sea for decades, the creation of the garrison does not support claims about the growing role of the PLA in Chinese foreign policy or policy in the South China Sea. Instead, the establishment of the garrison reflects the bureaucratic upgrade of an existing department following a change in the administrative status of the associated locality.

Third, militarily, any forces on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea are vulnerable and hard to defend. As retired U.S. Rear Admiral Mike McDevitt has said, “Putting garrisons on Woody Island or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag – to say, ‘We are serious.'”

Finally, the general reaction to the creation of the Sansha garrison reflects the limited understanding among analysts and observers of the PLA’s organization despite Beijing’s efforts to describe the structure of the Chinese armed forces in biannual white papers and media reports. For example, none of the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power have ever mentioned this level of organization. In the case of Sansha, the Chinese government could have better explained its decision, while commentators might have examined what garrisons actually do before jumping to ill-founded conclusions.

Perhaps the Olympic left voters primed and ultimately crestfallen, but I think we all need a real wrestling match before all the noise authorizes and empowers some unscrupulous demagogue to exploit our ennui.

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