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China's Naval Ambitions Spur New Regional Strategic Planning

Defense planning efforts in East Asia have been markedly influenced by China’s bellicose response to the detention of a Chinese fisherman for ramming a Japanese naval boat in disputed waters.

ANALYSIS: The detention generated vituperative reactions from Beijing, out of character from its traditional policy of quiet insistence on territorial claims while building naval capacity. This episode, in conjunction with China’s continuing claim of primacy in the South China Sea as a ‘core interest’, is encouraging increased discussion among its regional neighbors regarding naval collaboration.

Territorial Claims: Sino-Japanese tensions regarding the detention were inflamed by the location of the incident. The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, situated in the East China Sea, are believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves and fish stocks. The islands are also close to important sea lanes. China, Japan, and Taiwan each claim sovereignty over the islands. After the release of the captain of the Chinese fishing boat on September 24, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan that “the Diaoyu Islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times”. 

A similarly robust claim is being made for the South China Sea, which borders Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam among other states. A group of nine Vietnamese fishermen operating off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea were detained by Beijing for four weeks. The fishermen were released on October 11, as the unresolved issue threatened to overshadow the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers summit.

Regional Views: The inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers ‘+ 8’ Meeting, hosted by Hanoi on October 12 indirectly responded to Chinese naval aspirations. The summit was characterized by the ASEAN style of private consensual dialogue, rather than attempts to seek immediate conflict resolution. Attendees included the 10 ASEAN states, plus America, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, and South Korea. By involving these regional interlocutors, the new forum intends to inculcate a regional security approach that would seek to incorporate Chinese power projection within a cooperative security structure. This perspective was illustrated by the official summit theme of ‘Strategic Cooperation for Peace, Stability and Regional Development’.

Meeting before the summit, US Defense Secretary Gates


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