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After Deng: On China's Transformation

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
September 27, 2011
The Nation

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The South China Sea is vast, encompassing around 1.4 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and its islands are so minuscule that most can barely accommodate an airplane runway and a few houses. Just several dozen permanent residents live on an atoll named Pagasa. Yet this past year, Pagasa and the other tiny islets have been drawn into one of the hottest military flash points in the world. China has treated nearly the entire South China Sea as its domain, even though five other nations claim part of it, and has increasingly harassed and even threatened to sink Vietnamese and Philippine boats passing through the area. At the same time, Chinese officials once known for their smooth, charming embrace of their neighbors seem to have flipped a switch, turning angry, demanding and intimidating. At a meeting with representatives of Southeast Asian nations last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi exploded, according to several reports, launching into a thirty-minute diatribe about China's vast claims to the South China Sea, a vital shipping route and supposedly the site of significant petroleum deposits. Topping off his performance, Yang mocked his Vietnamese hosts, implicitly warning them not to defy Beijing. China's state media have echoed Yang's belligerent rhetoric, and this past spring some hawkish Chinese strategists and officials privately talked of the need for a “limited war” with Vietnam, to show their southern neighbor who is the real power in Asia.

 

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