China invokes 'cabbage tactics' in South China Sea

China is conducting 'cabbage' or a militarily overwhelming strategy and 'salami-slicing' - insidious land-grabbing tactics to strengthen its power in the South China Sea

China invokes 'cabbage tactics' in South China Sea

By Huseyin Erdogan

China is following a long-term strategy with its so called "Cabbage Tactic" to increase its power in the South China Sea, said an expert from China's Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, on Tuesday.

"At a strategic level China is expanding its territorial control over the South China sea and also securing the trade routes that are vital to its continuous economic development," Ahmet Goncu, an associate professor at China's Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, told The Anadolu Agency AA via email. He added that "to achieve its strategic goals, China is following very clever tactics that are difficult to counter."

The South China Sea is a critical world trade route and a potential source of hydrocarbons, particularly natural gas, with competing claims of ownership over the sea and its resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, EIA.

The EIA estimates the South China Sea contains approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 5.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in proved and probable reserves. Conventional hydrocarbons mostly reside in undisputed territory.

Goncu further said the "Cabbage Tactic” the Chinese navy follows. "Whenever there is a conflicted small island, the Chinese military and paramilitary forces are sent to overwhelm the islands and lay siege to the surrounding islands with military ships, fishing boats along with other kinds of paramilitary vessels."

Goncu explains the tactic as being just like a cabbage, where the islands are wrapped with layers of Chinese vessels which block the entry or exit of another country's navies.

The previous example of this tactical maneuver was observed in April 2012 in the dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea. Philippines landed several coast guard forces on an island. The forces eventually retreated since the reef was overwhelmed and surrounded by Chinese navy and paramilitary vessels. In October 2013, a similar sequence of events occurred over the Ayungin Island in the Spratlys, which resulted in the uneven confrontation of a massive number of Chinese vessels versus the Filipino coastal guard. 

In February, China National Offshore Oil Corporation announced the discovery of natural gas field in the South China Sea with 100 billion cubic meters of reserves.

- Leaders gather to discuss the issue 

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Prime Minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung covered a wide range of high priority issues, including the South China Sea and their shared commitment to strengthening the strategic and security mandate of the East Asia Summit, according to a statement released by the Australian Prime Ministry office on Wednesday March 18 in Canberra. 

The two prime ministers called on all parties to fully implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, DOC, to exercise restraint and refrain from actions that could increase tensions in the region. These included the use of coercion or force to unilaterally alter the status quo. In the end, the PMs agreed on the urgent need to progress a code of conduct for the South China Sea, the statement said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo paid a visit to Tokyo on Monday, and said that China's claims on the South China Sea dispute have no legal foundation.

Some of the other countries around the South China Sea littoral area are becoming increasingly anxious about China’s intentions and are seeking to improve security ties with other nations.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Widodo agreed to pursue broad cooperation in safeguarding and realizing the economic potential of Asia's seas, according to Japanese Nikkei.

Earlier this month, defense ministers from Malaysia and the Philippines met in Manila and agreed that their deputy defense ministers would consult on a regular basis. The meeting was noteworthy as Malaysia, which claims several islands in the south Spratlys, usually prefers a softer approach.

"In general China is following a 'salami-slicing' tactic in the South China sea," said Goncu.

"This tactic means you focus on a long-term strategy but with each move, only a small piece and increase of territory is gained in a way that invokes the smallest reaction possible from opponents," Goncu explained. 

He gave an example of the tactics that were used by the Chinese navy in the area which he said were based on slow expansion of territory and the construction of various military bases in the small islands on the pretext of allowing for better logistics and monitoring.

"It is clear that other navies have something to learn from the tactics used by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Even though the U.S. is also increasing its presence in the area, they are not expanding their presence as much as the Chinese, and thus their strategy in the South China Sea is likely to be insufficient to stop the expansion of China,” said Goncu.

"While the U.S. has to spread its forces globally, China is in a better position to put its full strength in its own backyard to overwhelm any other force in the region," he added. 

China is also trying to give the U.S. the impression that involvement in this power struggle in the South China Sea implies high costs militarily and economically. 

"During the Obama administration, the U.S. already declared that it was increasing the number of its air and naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region," he noted. He said that the U.S. is continuing talks with Vietnam, Philippines, Japan and Australia in its effort to counterweight the rising military might of China. 

According to Goncu, the power struggle is not going to be an easy one for both sides, and indeed it will imply increasing power struggle around the globe involving different frontiers. With is close relations with Russia and Iran, China has the ability to keep the U.S. busy in different areas of the world and thus the U.S. might not be able to reflect its full power in the Asia-Pacific. 

Although China is improving its territorial control over the South China sea, exploration and drilling of oil reserves in the disputed waters has the potential to cause military clashes with Vietnam and/or Philippines, which might put the U.S. in a difficult position. 

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