The reported installation of the HQ-9 long range, high-altitude, surface-to-air missile system by China on the Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Islands group in the South China Sea has triggered speculations about what Beijing is up to.

Satellite images of Woody Island taken on Feb. 18

Washington says it proposes to have a “very serious conversation with Beijing and presumably onlookers in the region and beyond are keenly watching how “very serious” is the Obama administration’s grit when it comes to China and the rebalance strategy in Asia at a juncture when the US is barely coping with the Middle East problems and is unable to have its way in Eurasia, with Russia frustrating its best-laid plans.

Beijing claims that the fracas over Woody Island is in reality an orchestrated American campaign to frighten the ASEAN countries. Indeed, the first-ever summit meeting with the ASEAN grouping that Obama hosted in California last week provided the backdrop for the “breaking news” in the Paracels.

Various theories have appeared as regards Chinese motives. There are interpretations that Beijing resorted to jingoism to distract domestic attention from economic woes, or that China was simply mocking at the US-ASEAN summit.

Other analysts say it was a retaliatory measure provoked by recent US flyovers and sailbys; or, it could be a calculated step to establish China’s supremacy and could be prelude to a Beijing-imposed air defense identification zone in South China Sea.

Some others conclude that Beijing is working to a plan to shift the balance of power against the US.

The HQ-9 missile system is designed to track and destroy air targets including aircraft and cruise missiles within a range of 300 kilometers and as high as 23,000 feet. Now, the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner is generally above 30,000 feet.

Again, Woody Island is situated 400 kilometers southeast of Hainan Island, one of China’s main submarine bases. China has been protesting (in vain) against aggressive US surveillance on its military assets.

Interestingly, HQ-9 missile system threatens P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft, which the US uses to patrol South China Sea. Last May, China issued eight warnings to a P8-A aircraft snooping around the Spratly island chain.

Thus, emplacing the HQ-9 is essentially a defensive measure, protecting whatever aircraft and ships are there on Woody Island. By the way, Woody Island has been in China’s possession since 1956 and unlike the case with the Spratly Islands, China has hosted military facilities in the Paracels for decades. So, why such ado today?

It boils down to China pushing back at the US, which has been lately pushing at China harder than before. The US twice sent warships recently within what China considers its territorial waters.

The Pentagon is planning “more complex” freedom-of-navigation operations. The USS Curtis Wilbur passed near another island in the Paracel chain on January 30.

We are witnessing the last phase of a strategic contest that began with the Obama presidency – Washington pushing its influence in the Asia-Pacific and China securing its interests assertively.

Beijing’s actions became distinctly “muscular” after the Obama administration announced the rebalance in Asia, which China saw as a “containment” strategy.

The missiles are not the issue here because for decades China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have stationed military hardware and personnel on the islands and reefs they control in South China Sea. And the US warships and surveillance aircraft also passed through the area regularly.

Real life interjects

The difference today is that China is pushing back at the US. The US’ post-World War II agenda in Asia, historically, aimed to prevent any single regional power emerging, which could challenge its dominance. The US is keenly inserting itself as arbiter-cum-mediator to create strategic space for itself in the fastest-growing region in the world economy where China has lately outstripped it in trade and investment linkage.

To be sure, real life has interjected. The ASEAN countries with territorial disputes with China do not want war. The ASEAN priority is on the “development agenda”, where China is the driver of growth for the region. The joint statement issued after the US-ASEAN summit last week avoided criticising China.

All this talk of “right of navigation” in South China Sea is rather vacuous. South China Sea is indeed a vital corridor through which over a trillion dollar trade is conducted. But then, China also happens to be the biggest ‘stakeholder’ here to ensure the right of navigation in the South China Sea through which it sources 90% of its oil imports.

At any rate, the high level of US-China interdependency (including on political issues such as the North Korea problem) compels Washington to think carefully about plunging into a confrontation.

Suffice it to say, what the US can hope to achieve realistically will be to manage the competition with China from a position of strength, while avoiding confrontation and taking care not to give impressions of covert attempts to contain China.

China’s re-emergence is part of a historic transition. What is happening in Eurasia, Middle East and Asia-Pacific are actually analogous. The entente between Russia and China is providing both with the space to push back at the US hegemony.

The erosion of Euro-Atlantic authority, the growing irrelevance of the G7, the inability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in setting policy agenda serving the West’s preferences or choices, the failure of the United States to prevent even its closest partners and allies from joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – don’t these signposts, in the ultimate analysis, point in the same direction?

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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