Chinese General on Territorial Disputes: Not One ‘Inch’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 16, 2014 | 1:54 AM EDT

Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey take part in an arrival ceremony at the Pentagon on May 15, 2014. (Photo: DOD/D. Myles Cullen)" type="node

( – Amid serious tensions in the South China Sea, China’s top military officer brought to Washington Thursday a message to neighboring countries – and to the U.S. – that his country could not afford to “lose an inch” of territory it claims as its own.

A fresh assertion of China’s claim to territory also claimed by Vietnam has led to dangerous confrontations at sea in recent weeks and prompted anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam which turned deadly on Thursday.

Speaking at the Pentagon, Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, accused “certain countries” of thinking China was preoccupied with domestic economic concerns and were seeking a strategic advantage through provocative behavior.

“Certain countries believe that China would now focus on our economic development and are trying to maintain the window of strategic opportunity. Therefore they believe it is the opportunity for them to make the provocation,” he said through an interpreter.

“But we are not afraid of that. We do not make trouble, we do not create trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble,” Fang said. “In matters relating to sovereignty, to territorial integrity, our attitude has been firm.”

“Territory which has passed down by our ancestors into the hands of our generation, we cannot afford to lose an inch.”

Standing alongside Fang, who is on a five-day visit to the U.S., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that during their discussions, “we spoke about the fact that the use of military assets to resolve disputes is provocative, and it does increase risk.”

“We had a rich discussion about what exactly is the status quo [in the South China Sea] and who has been seeking to change it,” he added.

In this Sunday, May 4, 2014 image made from video released by Vietnam Coast Guard, a Chinese coast guard vessel, right, fires water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel off the coast of Vietnam. (AP Photo/Vietnam Coast Guard)" type="node

China claims sovereignty over practically the entire South China Sea, despite competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. Separately Beijing is embroiled in a dispute with Japan over resource-rich islands in the East China Sea.

Washington says it is neutral on the specific disputes, although it has reaffirmed its mutual defense treaty commitments in the case of Japan and the Philippines.

The latest standoff began when China on May 1 sent an oil rig to disputed waters near the Paracel islands, known in China as Xisha. After Vietnam dispatched ships to the area in a bid to prevent the rig’s deployment collisions occurred between Vietnamese and Chinese escort vessels, with each accusing the other of provocations.

In Vietnam nationalist sentiment soared, leading to protests targeting Chinese interests – although often harming Taiwanese businesses instead.

At least one Chinese worker at a Taiwanese-owned steel mill in central Vietnam was killed and scores were hurt when an anti-Chinese mob attacked the plant on Thursday.

Vietnamese protesters stage a rally against Beijing's deployment of an oil rig in the contested waters of the South China Sea, outside the Chinese Embassy on Sunday, May 11, 2014 in Hanoi, Vietnam. (AP Photo/Chris Brummitt)" type="node

Beijing responded angrily, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a Thursday night phone call telling his Vietnamese counterpart that Hanoi “bears unshirkable responsibility for the violent attacks against Chinese companies and nationals,” according to the Xinhua state news agency.

Vietnam’s communist authorities, who very rarely tolerate public protests, have announced hundreds of arrests since Tuesday. The country’s prime minister Thursday ordered officials at all levels of government to prevent further riots, severely punish those responsible, and protect foreign owned companies and their employees.

At the same time, Vietnam’s foreign ministry reiterated its stance that China’s actions at sea were “illegal” and said it was natural for citizens to display their patriotic zeal in support of their country’s sovereignty.

Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh stressed that the law should not be broken in the process.

‘Get used to China’s rise’

State-run China Daily in an editorial Friday raised suspicions of official collusion in the violence, at least at a local level.

“It seems as if the Vietnamese authorities and the local governments had not prepared for the possibility of demonstrations getting out of control, and this begs the question of whether the local authorities acquiesced in the escalation into violent crimes,” it said.

Meanwhile the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said that as China becomes more powerful and asserts its sovereign claims it will have to grapple with growing diplomatic challenges.

“China has taken the first assertive step in securing its territorial integrity in the South China Sea, and in the meantime faces strong protests from Hanoi and Manila, and obvious bias from the U.S.”

“It’s a demanding and risky job to let other countries get used to China’s rise and treat China as a major power. Vietnam and the Philippines, which haven't updated their knowledge about China, still cherish the illusion that China can simply be forced back by pressure,” it said.

“China faces a dilemma with its growing power,” the editorial continued. “On the one hand, it will be confronted by neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, and other stakeholders like the U.S. if it makes use of its power.

“On the other, if China conceals its power, its determination to safeguard territorial integrity will be underestimated, which would further foster the unscrupulousness of countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Thursday reiterated the U.S. view that the Chinese’s oil rig deployment was “provocative and raises tensions.”

“This is a unilateral action that appears to be part of a broader pattern, quite frankly, of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed areas in a manner that really undermines peace and stability in the region.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow