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Responsibility and Irredentism in the PLAN

May 29, 2011

Steve LeVine at Foreign Policy points out that with increasing commercial activity, and energy prospecting in particular, due to increase in the coming months, we are likely to see more incidents between China and its smaller neighbors over the South China Sea. This is not particularly surprising, but it is worth pointing out a possible connection between this and China’s other maritime activities.

The PRC earned a good deal of praise for deploying the PLAN off of Somalia to help protect merchant shipping. Even going to the point of asking the Somali Foreign Minister for permission to operate in the area, China demonstrated a great deal of support for freedom of the seas and the international rule of law. Such operations are not purely out of good will, however. China’s conception of freedom of the seas is far different than most Western countries, as evidenced by their extremely expansive interpretation of what China’s Exclusive Economic Zone means for commercial and military activity. This goes beyond what particular territories China believes are its own, and into the realm of legal interpretation.

Participating with a broad coalition of other countries in protecting freedom of navigation and international commerce far abroad was far from contradictory to Chinese interests in the South and East China Seas. As recent incidents involving intruding small vessels such as fishing trawlers and commercial craft demonstrate, dealing with non-military vessels is an important matter for protecting China’s sovereign claims as well as counter-piracy and sea lane protection. As the PLAN gains experience in operating in such environments and dealing with maritime operations other than war, it provides valuable experience for dealing with the sea lanes and non-military vessels closer to home.

In other words, being a good global stakeholder on issues which count to China is not at odds with China taking a vigorous approach in the defense of its own interests and the carving out of a Chinese sphere of influence and control – at a certain level, they actually reinforce each other. Getting naval experience in globally sanctioned operations such as the counter-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean gives China a way to flex its naval muscle and gain experience in long-range operations without causing an international incident. At the same time, it helps the PLAN enlarge its menu of potential responses for sovereignty disputes closer to home. It’s just another sign that China’s behavior as a stakeholder does not necessarily dull a vigorous pursuit of its national interests closer to home, and that the strategic challenges it poses to the US will be more complex than optimists care to admit or Cold War-fearing pessimists predict.

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