China used the stopover at Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an opportunity to up its ante in South East Asia. But, developments in the region over the past few weeks have shown how provocative and aggressive China’s dealings with its neighbors, near and far, are in real terms.
Taiwan And Taiwan Strait
Unable to dissuade the veteran politician from calling on Taipei with aggressive warnings, Beijing resorted to high-level military drills in the region. Its display of displeasure and military power left no doubt that Taiwan was considered an integral part of China under its ‘One country, two systems’ doctrine – a status quo acknowledged by many nations.
The war games, which lasted days, simulated the blockade and invasion of the Taiwan Strait, a vital and strategic international shipping route. Earlier in June, China’s foreign ministry had declared the Taiwan Strait a part of its “internal waters,” including “territorial sea, contiguous zone, and the exclusive economic zone.”
India And The Indian Ocean
Beijing’s naval push is creating palpable tension in the region. India had raised objections to the Chinese military tracking vessel, Yuan Wang 5, calling on the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Beijing and Colombo claimed the “research ship” was on a “civilian research mission.” New Delhi held valid concerns that the vessel would be used to gather data for military purposes. Despite providing massive aid and support to the island nation during its recent crisis, India could not prevail on Sri Lanka to deny permission to the Chinese ship.
The Solomon Islands And The South Pacific
Evidently, China’s grand plans for domination do not end with the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. Beijing is setting its sights on the South Pacific, a region it until recently limited to trade relations. By signing the “security pact” with the Solomon Islands, located in the South Pacific, to the northeast of Australia, earlier this year, the country made its foray into the region.
The pact had raised concerns among various nations. The treaty paved the way for the Chinese military and police presence on the tiny island nation and left open the possibility of a future naval base there.
There were concerns that China would demand sops for providing “security” and may hijack its strategic ports or other resources in place of reimbursement of debt, as in the case of the Sri Lankan port, Hambantota. Those fears may be coming true much earlier than expected.
Reports that Honiara has denied permission to U.S. and U.K. vessels from calling on its ports indicate shifting allegiance. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s government claims that the country is “reviewing the process” of allowing foreign vessels to call on its ports. Honiara has asked for “time to review” and develop “new processes” before granting permission to foreign military vessels. The sudden need for such rethinking and the development of new procedures raises eyebrows. It is reasonable to suppose that the newfound security provider may have a hand in the latest developments.
Maintaining The Status Quo
The U.S. has repeatedly reiterated that it would defend the freedom of navigation through international waters and would not accept attempts to change the status quo or unilateral declarations of “historic rights.” In keeping with the message, two U.S. guided-missile cruisers recently conducted what the Navy described as “a routine transit mission” through the international waters between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
Washington has stepped up diplomatic visits to the island nations in the region to counter the growing Chinese influence. The U.S. is also set to open embassies in the South Pacific nations of Kiribati and Tonga.
In need of favorable trade partners and funds for development, many small developing nations turn to China, with its supposedly easy credit terms and foreign development initiatives. The U.S. and its allies must provide viable alternatives to counter the honey trap. Else, it is not only the autonomy of the small nations that is in danger but the right of free passage through international waters for other nations.
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