TAIPEI - Broad hints have been coming out of China that the country might start small-scale military strikes over disputed waters that are believed to hold rich energy reserves. The consequences of such endeavors would be tolerable to Beijing, international experts say.
Bitter territorial disputes China has with neighbors in the East and South China Seas have long grabbed media headlines. Virtually all countries in the region are involved in spats with China, from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines and Vietnam. In March alone, Beijing had verbal clashes with Seoul over a submerged rock; with Manila over the Philippines' plan to build a ferry pier; and with Hanoi over China's biggest offshore oil explorer's moves to develop oil and gas fields.
But it wasn't only words: Vietnamese fishing boats were also seized by China and their crews detained. What all the disputed zones, islands and rocks have in common is that they actually are much nearer to the shores of the rival claimants than to China's.
When strategists speak of the "Malacca Dilemma", they mean that Beijing's sea lines of communications are highly vulnerable. In times of conflict between the US and China, the supply of crude and iron ore needed to keep the Chinese economy alive and kicking could be relatively easily cut off in the straits that connect the Indian Ocean with the Pacific.
As such, a move would force the Chinese leadership rather quickly to the negotiation tables on the enemy's terms - and as it becomes clearer that the western Pacific holds vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas - Beijing naturally sees control over the areas as a way out of its precarious situation. (According to Chinese estimates, oil and gas reserves in the western Pacific could meet Chinese demand for more than 60 years.)
With official defense spending to top US$100 billion in 2012, and the actual amount estimated to be much higher, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) seems on course towards building the strength needed to ensure all goes smoothly in China's quest for energy security.
New ballistic anti-ship missiles will make Washington think twice about ordering US forces into the region to come to their allies' rescue, as will a growing arsenal of land-based tactical aircraft and anti-ship cruise missiles, not to mention a fleet heavy on missile-firing warships and submarines. Making access to this part of the world even dicier for US forces, China's ongoing military modernization has also seen an easing of past detection, tracking and targeting problems for Chinese gunners.
If Beijing is confident that Washington would not want to intervene, rival armed forces in the region could be taken on with J-15 fighters to be stationed on China's first aircraft carrier likely to be commissioned in August, a rapidly increasing number of naval destroyers, as well as brand-new amphibious landing ships and helicopter-carriers that can carry thousands of marines quickly to disputed islands.
That the political will exists for such operations has been signaled more than once. In commentaries run in China's state media, most notably in the Global Times, the concept of "small-scale wars" has increasingly been propagated since 2011. In early March, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized that the PLA needed to be better prepared to fight "local wars".
Experts interviewed by Asia Times Online agreed that China would likely meet future objectives with limited military strikes.
According to Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, much will depend on what the small war is about, how it is conducted and against which country. Tsang believes the South Koreans won't be the target despite a recent war of words that erupted after the chief of China's State Oceanic Administration claimed that Leodo Reef, a submerged rock off South Korea's resort island of Jeju, is almost certainly part of China's "jurisdictional waters". Beijing refers to the rock as Suyan Reef.
"China starting even a limited military operation against South Korea would be too serious to be tolerated by anyone," Tsang said. "The US would have to take a strong position and immediate action at the United Nations Security Council to impose a ceasefire," he added.
However, a minor military confrontation against Vietnam or the Philippines over the disputed atolls in the South China Sea was a very different matter, Tsang argued. "Although China couldn't take an easy victory against Vietnam for granted, and such wars will be gravely disturbing in Southeast Asia and the rest of East Asia, they will be manageable. If the confrontation would be short and limited, the immediate impact wouldn't be very significant."
Tsang warned, however, that a Chinese attack on Vietnam or the Philippines would strengthen the willingness of countries in Southeast Asia cooperate with the United States.
"But fundamentally there is not much those countries can do to counter an assertive China."
Tsang then took on the notion that the existing mutual defense treaty between the Philippines and the US leaves the Southeast Asian country "immune" to a brief Chinese attack.
"You need to check the terms of the treaty. The US government needs to consider [a military attack against the Philippines] as a serious security matter for which it needs to respond, for which time is required to deliberate an appropriate response," Tsang said. "Nothing will happen if the incident is over before the matter reaches congress for a serious debate."
James Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, says Beijing would likely get away with it if the PLA were to attack the Philippines or Vietnam.
"Beijing would keep any small war as small and out-of-sight as possible. The superiority of its fleet vis-a-vis Southeast Asian militaries, and the advent of new shore-based weaponry like the anti-ship ballistic missile, give China a strong 'recessed deterrent' in times of conflict," Holmes said.
He explained that China could hold its major combat platforms in reserve while seeking its goals with relatively innocuous, lightly armed vessels from its maritime security services, which are its equivalents to a coast guard.
"Southeast Asian navies might challenge these ships, but they would do so in full knowledge that People's Liberation Army could deploy vastly superior sea power should they try it," Holmes said.
Economists also don't see too many obstacles for a small energy war against one China's Southeast Asian neighbors.
"Stock markets would overreact around the world in the short term - say a few days," said Ronald A Edwards, an expert on China's political economy at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
"But there would be little if any effect in terms of affecting this year's inflation, employment or output of any country other than the one attacked by China."
Edwards concluded on a disturbing note. He argued that the outcome of the nine-day-long Russian-Georgian war in 2008, in which Russia used overwhelming force to push Georgia out of South Ossetia, earning Western condemnation, could be taken as an indicator on whether China's economy would pay dearly for the PLA's military adventures.
"The brief Russian war with Georgia comes to mind as a very good example for comparison," Edwards said. "While the news coverage of this was headlines everywhere for a couple weeks, there were no major economic effects in countries other than Georgia in August of 2008 or thereafter."
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.