China’s Second Great Wall
Ashish Sirsikar

Over the last year or so, but more so over the last month, a view has been doing the rounds of China building another “Great Wall”. References to this Chinese Great Wall have been made by the US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter when he spoke about China erecting a “Great Wall of Isolation” at the US Naval Academy graduation ceremony in May 2016 and subsequently at the Shangri-la Dialogue 2016. Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet also used this term when he spoke of China creating a “Great Wall of sand” in reference to Chinese reclamation activities in the South China Sea. This piece though, looks only at the supposed Chinese “Great Wall of Isolation”.

While the Chinese media largely dismisses this as an American propaganda, the western media sees this as an inevitable outcome of the unilateral actions undertaken by the People’s Republic of China. What then is the truth? An analysis of some of the past events would facilitate a better understanding.

It is largely believed that, one of the major reasons for Chinese ‘isolation’ stems from Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea. Chinese reclamation activities in the South China Sea and subsequent deployment of missiles on some of these reclaimed territories has led to other nations of this region, especially the ones with counter-claims, feeling insecure and which in turn leads to Chinese isolation. There is however no doubt about the fact that the US FONOP activities have also done their bit in roughening up the South China Sea waters.

What though has brought out China’s purported isolation in the open are two 21st Century dialogues which were initiated in the beginning and end of the first decade of this century. These being the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The Shangri-La dialogue which is an initiative of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) was first initiated in 2002. During the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue, US defence secretary Ashton Carter spoke about Chinese isolation (which till now was believed but left unsaid) when he stated that “....As a result, China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it, at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.....” (Italics added for emphasis).

On the other hand during the recent Shangri-la dialogue, the Chinese position was clarified by Admiral Sun Jianguo who is a senior military officer from the PLA. During his speech he brought out that the countries of the Asia-Pacific should go beyond the Cold War thinking and adopt a non-confrontational attitude which should prefer "dialogue rather than confrontation, and partnership rather than alliance". Further, while reiterating that China would not accept the verdict of the Tribunal on the South China Sea dispute, he also brought out that the so called "freedom of navigation plan" in the South China Sea by some countries was a blatant show of force. He attempted to assuage the feelings of all concerned by bringing out that China would not stir up trouble in the region. However, at the same time he reiterated that China was not afraid of getting involved and would not allow its sovereignty and security interests to be violated.

Immediately post the Shangri-La dialogue the Sino–US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) took place. The SED is a high-level dialogue for the United States and China to discuss a wide range of bilateral, regional, and global economic and strategic issues. It was established in April 2009 by US president Barack Obama and former Chinese President Hu Jintao. It has, at times in the past,been used as a platform to communicate important concerns/interests. An example of this was evident in the very first SED of July 2009, during which, Mr. Dai Bingguo, a top Chinese foreign policy official advanced a definition of Chinese core interests which till that date had not been amplified in so much detail.

The 2016 SED has seen some progress on crucial issues, one amongst them was that both parties agreed to the exchange of the negative list of the Sino-U.S. bilateral investment treaty (BIT). During the dialogue President Xi Jinping urged China and the United States to properly manage differences and sensitive issues and deepen strategic mutual trust and cooperation. He further said that the broad Pacific Ocean should not become an arena for rivalry, but a big platform for inclusive cooperation. What however was of particular interest was that President Xi felt that China and US should "cultivate common circles of friends" rather than "cultivate exclusive circles of friends" (Italics added for emphasis). These remarks by the President become even more interesting when they are read in conjunction with two developments. The first one is the recent dual carrier flight operation being undertaken in the Philippine Sea by the ships and aircrafts assigned to the USS John C. Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan. The second one pertains to the US Navy’s plans of rotationally stationing four Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) in Singapore by 2018 as a part of Washington’s pivot to Asia. On the basis of a correlation of these facts, it could be argued that, China’s call for an “inclusive” rather than “exclusive” circle of friends stems from its anxiety on account of the US gaining greater strategic space in the Western pacific than what the Chinese would have liked them to.

Another important geo-political development is the cooling off of cross-strait relations. Right from the time that President Tsai Ing-wen made her inaugural speech in which she referred to the self-reliant island as a “country” and refused to embrace the “One China” principle by not endorsing the “1992 consensus”, relations between the PRC and ROC (Republic of China or Taiwan) have not been as cordial as they used to be. While this is the case, it would also be pertinent , in her speech she also spoke about the necessity of maintaining the status quo as also working towards maintaining the existing mechanisms for dialogue and communication across the Taiwan Strait. Subsequently though, she did not do cross strait relations any good when during her visits to the strategic Hualien and Jiashan airbases, she urged the soldiers to stay alert and defend Taiwan’s “democracy” and “freedom” as well as enquired from them as to how despite them being members of the Air Force of the Republic of China, could they allow others to flaunt their military prowess over Taiwan’s territorial airspace. A further evidence of deteriorating cross-strait relations, is the fact that some Chinese mainland universities have reduced the number of or suspended short-term exchange programmes with Taiwan. While cooling off of cross strait relations cannot be construed as China’s isolation, it nevertheless is another estrangement in China’s neighbourhood which it can ill afford.

All the above arguments notwithstanding, given China’s present stature and position in global politics, it would be difficult if not impossible to isolate China. Also, though its economy is now on a downward trend with the so called “New Normal” being adopted, it still remains the largest trading partner for most of the Asia Pacific countries and hence besides others, on this count alone, it is and will remain a country to reckon with.

In the new global hotspot for geostrategic rivalry, namely the Asia Pacific, it is evident that there is and would remain a continuous jockeying for power. Washington's rebalance to the Asia-Pacific has been undertaken specifically with this intent. One of the defining moments of this region’s history is just around the corner with the Philippines’ quest for peacefully resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea entering a critical stage.

As things stand, though Chinese aggressive actions cause considerable heartburn, they don’t and cannot account for its isolation. However, more than anyone else, the Chinese leadership would be aware that continuous unilateral actions on its part would keep ratcheting up unease and tensions in the neighbourhood. This may not lead to full isolation but will surely hamper the accomplishment of the China Dream that they so dearly desire.

Published Date: 29th June 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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