January 10, 2017 4:00 pm JST
Xi's Supremacy

China responds to Trump comment with Pacific exercise

Beijing shows off navy around South China Sea

SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer

Beijing's recent military exercises reflect the government's view of the South China Sea as a core interest.

BEIJING -- China engaged in its own version of gunboat diplomacy, sailing the nation's sole aircraft carrier into the Pacific Ocean for the first time, following a remark by President-elect Donald Trump that the U.S. does not have to be bound by the "one China" policy.

Wu Shengli, commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy, proposed sending the Liaoning into the open waters of the western Pacific, while attending a military leadership meeting last month in Beijing immediately after Trump's comment. Chinese President Xi Jinping nodded in approval.

Military sends a message

The Chinese Communist Party considers the "one China" policy nonnegotiable, after the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists on the mainland and fled to Taiwan in 1949. Xi, who became the party's general secretary in fall 2012, calls for the "Chinese dream" of regaining the nation's global stature after humiliation by Great Powers -- a dream that includes unified rule of Taiwan.

Crises often bring opportunities as well as risks. Trump's remark has helped anti-American hard-liners in China's military motivate others to take on the U.S. Some have said they would not hesitate to shed blood if Trump intends to interfere with China's core interests.

Four days after Trump's statement, the Chinese navy captured a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea. Wu then boarded the Liaoning to take command of military exercises. The vessel departed Weihai, Shandong Province, and proceeded to the South China Sea by way of waters east of Taiwan. And this month, China publicized images of aircraft landing and departure exercises using the Liaoning to send a message.

Both Xi and Wu are part of the "second red generation," or children of revolutionary-era Communist Party leaders. The two have been friends since Xi served in Fujian Province. Wu grabbed the spotlight in 2007 when he proposed splitting the Pacific between China and the U.S.

Supply vessels bringing provisions for military exercises in the South China Sea are making more than triple the number of trips compared with a year earlier, said a 43-year-old woman who works at Qinglan Harbour on Hainan island, to which the Liaoning has now returned.

No permission needed

Trump has criticized China's military expansion in nearby waters, saying China does not have approval from the U.S. But Xi, who considers the South China Sea to be a Chinese body of water, has no intention of asking for such permission. Beijing has deployed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, part of the disputed Paracel Islands.

The private sector is moving in sync with the military. Cruise ships depart Hainan weekly on a tour of the Paracel Islands, carrying many tourists waving the national flag and singing the national anthem. One such 58-year-old Beijing man grew emotional and shed tears. The cruise tour recently adopted a bigger ship capable of carrying 900 people, triple the capacity of a smaller vessel used earlier.

Xi does not wish to squarely confront the U.S., so he is trying to elicit a response from Trump through provocation. With the military providing powerful support to China's one-party rule, political leaders tend to rely on intimidation rather than diplomacy. Even amid drastic changes worldwide that include an new administration in Washington, Xi keeps an unwavering focus on maintaining one-party rule and enhancing his influence in China. 

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