The turbulent lanes of the South China Sea are simmering on the global geopolitical map – throwing Asia into the centre-stage of littoral diplomacy and power mongering for a larger slice of the sea and the trade that passes through it. The pristine waters that were once on the margins of the protracted wars being fought on land – like those in West Asia, the Cold Wars pitting Russia against the United States and the World Wars– have surged back into consciousness with an ascending Sino sweep of the greater Asian sensitivity that is tilting to China’s growing commercial and diplomatic heft across the hemispheres.
The South China Sea is the theatre of this new power game. The dispute had been building for the last decade over the occupation of a motley crop of atolls, reefs and shoals- teeming with marine life – and demarcation of territories that China tried to clamp down with its “nine-dash line”, virtually bringing the whole of the watery swathe into its pale. It has broken the demographically contiguous south-east Asian nationalities and a large tract of East Asia into polarized entities – which are battling to keep their maritime rights on a tight leash. China is on a zealous overdrive to reclaim the reefs and atolls for building new bases – most of it aimed at military purposes to dare the might of America much to the disquiet of the allied nations set out against China.
The shadow war on the South China Sea, extending well into the East China Sea, is a hark-back to the Cold War with the two big power blocs – the United States of America and its allies – and China, the new muscle hub on the maritime and Asian commercial map – clawing at each other to keep their business lanes untouched by geographical claims. “Freedom of navigation” is the cornerstone of the allied powers while China claims traditional rights of ownership as US tries to breach manoeuvering . The conflict between the US and China is military in nature – the right of American military vessels to operate in the 200-mile exclusive economic zone believed to be belonging to China, a concession that China is reluctant to cede.
The historic slivers of contention on the South China East – a spillover of the Pacific Ocean- encompassing approximately 3,500,000 square kilometers of water – are however the picturesque little islets and rocky outcrops rich in Piscean variety. The wars pivoted around the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Patras Islands, the Maccesfield Bank and the Scarborough shoal.
The claims over the territories are conflicting – muddied by myriad international litigations, tribunals, arbitration, rejections of legal mandates, ‘unlawful’ occupation and even skirmishes. The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, known as Taiwan, stake claim to the entire sea – overlapping with the territorial rights espoused by Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Indonesia, China and Taiwan simultaneously claim the waters northeast of the Natuna Islands while the Phillipines, China and Taiwan bicker over the Scarborough shoal. Vietnam, China and the Taiwan compete for rights over the waters west of the Spratly Islands – while the land-masses are claimed by Vietnam, China, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines who eye the waters as well. The Paracel Islands are grounded in disputes between China, Taiwan and Vietnam – as Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam squabble over stretches along the Gulf of Thailand. Singapore and Malaysia are locked in a dispute in the Strait of Singapore and Strait of Johore. The ongoing tussles have several new spurs – and morphing ramifications because of the change of guard in the United States, which calls powerful shots on the trade routes along the disputed waters. China, which rejected a claim by the Philippines questioning the “efficacy of the nine-dash line” and the territorial ownership of the Spratly Islands – defied a verdict of an international arbitration tribunal set up under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea which backed Philippines in 2016. The Republic refused to comply with the mandate of the European tribunal –saying “historically the seas belonged to China”.
The escalation of animosity between the littoral nations at war has put business on the hiving block, drastically reducing the volume that passes through the lanes. According to rough math, nearly $ 5.3 trillion of trade charts the waters of which US accounts for nearly $ 1.2 trillion. Consequently, the United States keeps its spotlight fixed on the territorial rights to navigate – a freedom that has been considerably constrained by China’s aggression to ration the scale of American intervention and movement in the region.
A resurgent China is carving new power equations in the South China sea. A report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said China has placed anti-aircraft and “close-in” weapons systems to guard against missile attacks on the all the seven artificial “islands”.
The Associated Press says “the outposts have been built in recent years by piling sand on top of coral reefs followed by the construction of airstrips, barracks, lighthouses and radar stations and other infrastructure.” China contends that the islands have been resurrected from the sea-bed to ramp up maritime defence safety in the region as bastions – “and they also mark the country’s claim to ownership of practically the entire South China Sea.”
Analysts point out that China foresees more opportunities in an increasingly fractured Asia – where the ASEAN has not been able to cut deep swathes into the commercial potential of its member nations. One of its Chinese initiatives – the Maritime Silk Road that will connect all the Asian trade capitals along one umbrella route controlled by China – is well on its way with Pakistan flagging off the first Chinese ship recently from its new deep water port as a new economic corridor.
The maritime trade-fare necessitates armed scaffolding that has spurred the nation into a massive military build-up on the reclaimed islands and atolls – along the nine -dash line. These lands are all subject to counter-territorial claims creating new fissures along the global power fault-lines.
The over-sell of the maritime road – and the random military activity on the islands – have put the US on the edge whose commercial interests on the waters are in peril. America is known to fuse commerce with military might around the world – and the lanes on the South China Sea and further Orient (the East China and the Japan Seas) have not been spared of US muscle-flexing. The country – through its network of post-World War and cold war allies – maintains several shadow bases in the region where it wields joint military batons.
The latest trigger in the conflict has the potential to turn the sea into a battlefield. The Republican US President-elect Donald Trump has trained his guns on China with a telephone call to the President of Taiwan – two warring parties on the disputed islands of the South China Sea. The call, described as a breach of diplomatic protocol, questioned the One-China policy that the US had endorsed in 1972 – and formalized in 1979. Trump who in as many words shot down the “one-China policy” – under which a foreign power, especially US, cannot reach out to Taiwan with diplomatic overtures – has sharpened the flashpoints of the dispute. The “brash” President hit out at China saying “China could not devalue the interests of the US along the trade lanes and in the Oriental money market” – and the build up of the massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea was a mockery of littoral camaraderie that the US sought to establish with China on the Asian trade routes. China responded by flying a nuclear bomber over the disputed islands along the nine-dash line.
Analysts say Trump has been trying to play the Russia card against in a reversal of what Nixon had attempted in the early Sixties – but Putin may not find it comfortable to jeopardize Russian ties with China which had reached an even keel in the last decade after years of traditional rivalry between the red citadels.
Trump’s hard-line on China’s aggression in the Asian waters sends mixed signals about the changing power math on the world map. Initially China friendly, Trump has suddenly decided to pit his brawns against it by warming up to Taiwan – which sources hint- may have been motivated by his business interest in the country, a bustling commercial hub. China may not yield much in terms of business – as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
If the US decides to flaunt its firepower on the South China to counter China’s hard rhetoric on the waters – then he has to take into account the interests and confidence of the ASEAN nations, a bloc which is not averse to forging closer ties with a Republican United States. The US cannot fight China alone on the South China Sea – for it would entail a cataclysmic geopolitical upheaval in the regions flanking the waters which are at war with China. The dispute on the South China Sea is creating new allies on land – further westward in the continent.
The economic corridor that China has opened with Pakistan spans a wide maritime stretch which falls within the purview of the greater South China sea conflict – integrating disputing claims over water, air and land simultaneously. It has brought Pakistan into an unusual bilateral cooperation with China – where the role of US is mired in ambivalence because of its outpourings of “diplomatic warmth” for Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. An unpredictable Donald Trump could later wean away Pakistan from China or may cave in to growing pressure to scale down tirade against China- over the military build-up in the South China Sea and overlapping business interests. Under such circumstance, the trade space created by ASEAN – as an umbrella of contiguous regional and commercial national entities along the water and the land routes in south east and east Asia – will lie in tatters in the hurricane of an American and Chinese confrontation or a deepening engagement. The smaller Asian nations – with territorial claims to the South China Sea (and even East China sea) will be cease to be relevant.
India does figure much on the map – observers suggest – unless the dispute spills and sputters in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where US has a sizeable say in Indian trade and defence affairs under a 10-year-pact. China is a major player in the region. But for the time- the buffer nation (India) which has been advocating peaceful resolution to the South China Sea conflict under the UN Sea Protocol has to fend off one niggling fear- of growing political and economic isolation in the Asian trade and power canvas which is hefting imperceptibly in favour of China in the south Asian region.
Blame it on the fire escalating the mercury on the South China Sea and its ramifications across the continent.