By David Lague
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China has adopted a more aggressive stance in recent weeks on territorial disputes in the South China Sea as hard-line officials and commentators call on Beijing to take a tougher line with rival claimants.
China's supreme policymaking body, the Politburo Standing Committee, is made up entirely of civilians, but outspoken People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers, intelligence advisers and maritime agency chiefs are arguing that Beijing should be more forceful in asserting its sovereignty over the sea and the oil and natural gas believed to lie under the sea-bed.
Most of them blame the United States' so-called strategic "pivot" to Asia for emboldening neighboring countries, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, to challenge China's claims.
"China now faces a whole pack of aggressive neighbors headed by Vietnam and the Philippines and also a set of menacing challengers headed by the United States, forming their encirclement from outside the region," wrote Xu Zhirong, a deputy chief captain with China Marine Surveillance, in the June edition of China Eye, a publication of the Hong Kong-based China Energy Fund Committee.
"And, such a band of eager lackeys is exactly what the U.S. needs for its strategic return to Asia," he wrote.
Most Chinese and foreign security policy analysts believe China wants to avoid military conflict across sea lanes that carry an annual $5 trillion in ship-borne trade, particularly if it raises the prospect of U.S. intervention.
However, they say Beijing is increasingly determined to block any unified effort from rival claimants to negotiate over disputes, preferring instead to isolate much smaller and weaker states in direct talks.
There was evidence of this harder line at an annual foreign ministers' meeting of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc earlier this month where diplomats said China's influence behind the scenes led to an unprecedented breakdown in the grouping's traditional preference for maintaining an appearance of harmony and unity.
The meeting in Phnom Penh ended in disarray without progress on a proposed code of conduct that was aimed at minimizing the risk of conflict in the South China Sea or issuing a concluding communique.
China's close ally Cambodia, the meeting's host, blocked every attempt to include tensions in the South China Sea on the agenda, said the diplomats from other member nations.
On the military front, China's powerful Central Military Commission has approved the formal establishment of a military garrison for the South China Sea.
The move, announced this week, is essentially a further assertion of China's sovereignty claims after it last month raised the administrative status of the seas to the level of a city, which it calls Sansha.
The official Xinhua news agency said the Sansha garrison would be responsible for "national defense mobilization ... guarding the city and supporting local emergency rescue and disaster relief" and "carrying out military missions".
The city government is located on the 2.13-square km Yongxing Island, according to Xinhua, which contains a small military airport, a sea port, roads, a clinic, a post office and an observatory. This is in the Paracels, a group of islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
A ship calls twice in a month from nearby Hainan province to serve its 613 residents.
Xu, a regular commentator on maritime security issues, is one of many analysts arguing that recent tensions are a direct result of the Obama administration's announcement late last year of a strategic shift which would eventually see 60 per cent of the U.S. navy's warships deployed to the Asia Pacific, up from the current 50 per cent.
The U.S. move is widely seen as a response to China's growing military power and increasingly assertive behavior in dealing with contested territory.
China's recent rows with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and Vietnam over oil exploration rights have heightened regional fears that tension in the South China Sea could lead to armed conflict.
One of China's most hawkish army officers, Major General Zhu Chenghu, an influential teacher and strategy researcher at Beijing's National Defence University, has dismissed the entitlement of these rivals to the disputed waters.
UNREASONABLE AND ILLEGAL
In a speech to the World Peace Forum in Beijing earlier this month, Zhu said it was "unreasonable and illegal" for the Philippines and Vietnam to claim territory that historically belonged to China.
He said there had been no disputes in the South China Sea before the 1970s when maps published by rival claimants also acknowledged it was Chinese territory.
"Relevant countries did not begin to lay claim to islands and sea waters in the area until the discovery of large amounts of oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea," he said, according to an extract of his speech published in the official Global Times newspaper last week.
Zhu also blamed U.S. "meddling" for prolonging the current tension.
The retired general is best known for his assertion in 2005 that China should use nuclear weapons against the United States if American forces intervened in a conflict over Taiwan.
He escaped any serious censure over what he stressed at the time were his personal views and has since become a regular member of high-level Chinese military delegations in security talks with U.S. counterparts.
Other officials calling for a tougher line include Cui Liru, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a Beijing think-tank closely linked to China's intelligence services, and Major General Luo Yuan, a retired army officer who is well known for his hard-line views and provocative media commentaries.
It is unclear how much sway these blunt speaking officials exercise over foreign and military policies or whether their views reflect official thinking.
But for the PLA, the persistent territorial disputes undermine a carefully-honed image as a force that will never allow foreign powers to encroach on Chinese territory as they did in the colonial period.
"The South China Sea situation is certainly highly frustrating for Chinese military officers," said Sun Yun, a Washington-based China security policy expert and a former analyst with the International Crisis Group in Beijing.
"If the PLA cannot even defend China's own territory at its doorstep, what capacity or legitimacy does it have to cruise around the world?"
Some top Chinese policy makers say neighboring countries should accept that an increasingly powerful China would seek to re-shape relationships that had been established earlier when it was weak.
Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush's national security advisor and now a consultant, said when he was on a visit to Beijing earlier this month a senior Chinese official had told him that China's views should be given more weight now that it had become stronger.
In a talk to the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington last week, Hadley said he could see some merit to this view but he added it could be a "destructive" way of framing issues.
"This new China is going to be hard to manage," he said.
However, notwithstanding the recent assertiveness and the bellicose statements of military and security officials, some analysts note that policy-making in China is not entirely in the hands of hawks.
"Given that all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee are civilians, their perceptions of the South China Sea issue are clearly more comprehensive than the generals," said Sun, the Washington-based expert.
However, others warn against making distinctions between the views of China's military brass, civilian leaders and diplomats.
Dean Cheng, a China security expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said Beijing was hardening its stance in the South China Sea and also in other maritime areas where it had disputes with Japan and South Korea.
"We have a broad set of hardliners, not just in uniform, but across the board," he said.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)