China’s unilateral action on South China Sea drives Pacific nations to seek US protection!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Asia-pacific region remains a flashpoint as China is gradually trying to expand its control over the common sea territories in South East Asia. China’s aggressive project to build small islands in the South China Sea region, ignoring territorial claims of fellow nations in the region, is hitting Pacific nations at a more visceral level, bringing anxiety over security. China’s creation of small military installations, including a 10,000- ft. landing strip, on various tiny atolls in the Western Spratly Islands seems to have ratted Washington to pay more attention on the issue rattling the region for quite some time.
The Pacific countries Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei have long had their own competing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. To complicate the issue further, now China claims over hundreds of mostly uninhabited small islands, reefs, and rocks in the 1.4-million square mile South China Sea. Using traditional symbols to describe one’s position in a given situation, China says it controls the territory within a U-shaped maritime boundary, known as the 9-dash line and also referred to as “the cow’s tongue,” since the line appears in a large curvature far below the mainland.
China claims a whopping 90 percent chunk of the South China Sea. Its maps draw a “nine dash line” to mark its claims, some of which are nearly 1,500 kms from China but close to the coastlines of nations that ring the line, like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. However, China’s claim does not stand up under existing international law, as laid down in the United Nations Law of the Sea. China enjoys such rights because its fishermen have cast their nets in those distant waters for centuries. Those claims give China “indisputable sovereignty” over the land features and waters inside the line, Beijing insisted in a document presented to the UN in 2009. That sovereignty is, in fact, disputed. The Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Brunei all claim some or all of the rocks, atolls, reefs, islands, and water that China says belong to it. The Philippines has taken China to an international court at The Hague to challenge the legitimacy of the “nine dash line,” though Beijing has said it does not recognize the tribunal’s right to rule on the matter. Beijing evidently hopes that its recent land reclamation drive has changed the facts on the ground – or in the sea.
In order to showcase its prowess to neighbors, Chinese naval forces have already denied the Philippines access to explore oil and gas deposits and have harassed Philippine fishing fleets from places like the Scarborough Shoals, which sit about 100 miles off Philippine shores. The Chinese Coast Guard occasionally blasts Filipino fishermen with water cannons after they sail too close to the tiny island outposts. Such unilateral action by China could spiral out of control, or a misunderstanding” could result with a military clash, killing people.
Chinese engineers using dredgers have turned seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys into artificial islands. Some are large enough to support garrisons, land fighter jets or to dock large naval vessels. Satellite images show cement factories and multi-story buildings being constructed and identifiable state- owned enterprises racing to make the new islands habitable. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC says these outposts would also help China “better safeguard national territorial sovereignty” and serve “military defense” purposes. Uses include helicopter bases for anti-submarine operations, aircraft refueling facilities, naval harbors and radar and missile installations that could one day help China’s air force impose an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, as it has tried to do over the East China Sea in its dispute over island ownership with Japan. Those prospects worry both the USA and regional powers.
In addition to boosting defense funding, Manila is preparing to reopen a former American naval base in Subic Bay where it will station new fighter jets purchased from South Korea. Repairs are also being made to a rusting World War II-era cargo ship now beached in the Spratlys that serves as the country’s most western military outpost.
China’s expansion and reclamation of islands in the South China Sea has escalated tension among Southeast Asian countries, and coordination between Japan and the Philippines may be perceived in Beijing as tacit support from Japan that the Philippines have rights to contested ocean territory. Japan, Asia’s second-biggest economy after China, receives a cut of the $5 trillion in cargo that passes through the shipping routes of the South China Sea each year.
The increase in activity in the region comes at a time when Southeast Asian leaders are jockeying for control over a swath of ocean that provides a tenth of the fish caught by global companies, Japan does not have any direct territorial interests in the South China Sea, but Japan’s own national security will be greatly affected by any instability and conflict there, making it a legitimate stakeholder.
Meanwhile, a Japanese surveillance plane with crew from the Philippines flew over areas of the South China Sea that the Philippines are in dispute with China over. The flight path taken by the Japanese plane was close to the Spratly Islands, which the Philippines claim, and where China is constructing man-made islands.
Japan and China also face a direct standoff over disputed sea territories.
The monopoly strategy of China, equipped with military prowess and a UN veto seat, has prompted an everlasting increase in military spending by the regional nations. The Philippines announced a 25 percent increase in military spending over 13 years aimed at bolstering naval defenses and effectively countering China’s claims.
As Asia’s super power China is pushing its agenda in the region, the Pacific nations are exploring diplomacy with the global super power USA, new defense options, and even international legal recourse to stop China from extending its sphere of influence just off their shores.
The Hague tribunal admittedly has no enforcement mechanism and Beijing has signaled it has no plans to uphold an international ruling. But the hearings may provide the Philippines additional arguments in future negotiations. A decision on whether the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration has jurisdiction to rule comes this fall.
Obviously, UNSC‘s veto members have certain prerogatives, rights and advantages and China is taking full advantages of being a permanent member on the discredited UNSC. USA and other veto members or NATO have not taken the military steps on fellow veto members Russia and China.
Even as Russia, China’s senior strategic partner, annexed Crimea and reportedly moved into Ukraine its military to defend the ethnic Russian there, China also built seven artificial islands in the strategically sensitive and economically critical South China Sea, alarming its neighbors and risking confrontation with the USA, because it believes it can get away with the nervy move and bolster an old desire for regional dominance.
The Chinese mainland lies nearly 1,000 miles away from its most distant claims. Beijing’s full claim over the sea would give it control of shipping routes touching half of all global trade through the region. Earlier this summer China said authoritatively that it would stop expanding the number of islands it is reclaiming but would continue to build in places where it has started work. China’s land reclamation efforts have taken place in an area that constitutes nearly 80 percent of its exclusive economic zone, a 200-mile radius that extends from national territory under the UN Law of the Sea.
China seems to have laid the groundwork to move its land power south … expanding the area of competition with the United States. In fact, China has wanted to do this for a long time. Now it has the dredging vessels, the money and the people. China tentatively turned in that direction in June, announcing that it had nearly finished its land reclamation drive.
China counts the South China Sea land reclamation project a success and it has strengthened its position in sovereignty disputes with its neighbors in Southeast Asia and it has projected its power into the heart of a waterway that sees five trillion dollars worth of trade each year.
The regional powers say China is causing a big and imminent threat to security” in Southeast Asia. The rise of China’s economic power has given rise to its military power and the regional rivals cannot in any way stop or weaken the economic muscle of Beijing.
The Philippines is also fighting back in court. A case at The Hague argued on July 13 sought to have an international court rule on the legality of China’s territorial claim. That case is causing a stir here and in Vietnam, off whose shores China parked an oil rig last year, bringing clashes at sea and at home between ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese.
The Philippine military is limited compared with China’s. But under a decades-old mutual defense pact, the US is obliged to aid its former colony if it is attacked. Yet how far Washington will take action in the sea is unclear. However, there are lingering doubt and unwarranted expectations in Manila. Filipinos have a tendency to place excessive or misplaced expectations in America’s commitment to protect the Philippines.
Vietnam is also looking for similar assistance to confront China on the high seas. Earlier this month, Hanoi’s Communist Party Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong, who met with President Obama in the Oval Office, told a forum in Washington that his country plans to expand military partnerships with the USA. The Pentagon said it will provide Vietnam with $18 million to purchase coast guard vessels.
Australia is considering sailing the sort of Freedom of Navigation patrols that the US navy runs regularly through the South China Sea to challenge any Chinese sovereignty claims it considers excessive. Even India has voiced concerns over possible threats to free navigation on major trade routes, including in the Indian Ocean.
The Chinese are acting as if they are stronger than they are. Caught in the middle of this big power maneuvering are a clutch of Southeast Asian nations that nurse territorial claims to rival China’s. Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei sell most of their exports to China, and China is a growing source of investment for them. Beijing’s recent moves have frightened their governments who are looking to Washington for regional balance.
As China’s interests and horizons expand, so will its impulse to exert physical control. China is moving beyond being a great power. The secretive and determined methods Beijing is using to turn rocks and atolls into potential military bases, and its bland dismissal of other nations’ claims to those specks of island turf, is causing worry beyond just the Pacific Rim.
China’s activities in the South China Sea have sparked doubts about its intentions. China now appears to have altered a long-professed policy of “peaceful rise” and shown another face in the Pacific, and in so doing has driven a number of Pacific nations towards an American embrace.
Regional powers expect China to make good on its promises that all the civilian facilities it builds will be open to all. It seems that increased international attention on China’s activities has slowed down its military buildup. When under strong international pressure, China tends to adjust its strategy. In recent days China has adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying it will build fishing havens, weather stations, and light houses on the islands, though the Philippines and its Southeast Asian neighbors are dubious.
World’s perceptions on China being a sensible nation with its ‘peaceful rise’ policy” have changed. As China focused on building its economy and infrastructure it talked to neighbors about peace. But now China is trying to make peace effort as the subject of other countries to consider.
President Xi Jinping of China has emphasized closer trade and investment ties with Southeast Asia. The emphasis, called “One Belt, One Road,” is a centerpiece of his foreign policy, but China’s strategies on the South China Sea and on “One Belt, One Road” are in conflict.
Clearly, China’s unilateral action on South China Sea drives Pacific nations to seek US protection and Washington, still struggling with its Asia pivot agenda, might, as speculated by analysts, showcase an assertive stance on their behalf.
But will USA, fighting many battles around simultaneously, show any real inclinations for spending extra energy in the region?