All at Sea

With Trump taking over and China making its intentions clear, South China Sea could become a serious global flashpoint

By   |  Published: 22nd Jan 2017  2:00 amUpdated: 21st Jan 2017  11:46 pm
Representational Image

When an international arbitration tribunal ruled against China’s claims to rights in the South China Sea, backing Philippines, Beijing was quick to trash the ruling as a “US inspired move”, “null and void” and said “China neither accepts nor recognises it.”

“There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” the Permanent Court of Arbitration said, referring to a demarcation line on a 1947 map of the sea.

The South China Sea is a resource-rich strategic waterway crucial for global commerce through which over $5 trillion worth of world trade is shipped each year. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including reefs and islands also claimed by others.
The tribunal said China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands. China has placed runways and radar facilities on new islets in the disputed sea, built by piling huge amounts of sand onto reefs.

China’s activity in the Spratly Islands, a disputed group of reefs and islands in the South China Sea, prompted the US to send Navy destroyers to patrol near the islands twice in recent months.

Illustration by Gurusri

Sea of Contention
Since decades, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have been making competing claims over territory in the South China Sea and tension has started escalating in recent years.

China has been quite aggressive with its claims and has resorted to island-building and naval patrols. Responding, the US has sent military ships and planes to the disputed islands to ensure “freedom of navigation” in key shipping and air routes.

With China and US “militarising” the South China Sea, it could become a major flashpoint, leading to serious global consequences.

Basically, the dispute is over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas that constitute a major
shipping route, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains with possibly huge reserves of oil and gas, claimed by many countries. The disputed territory also includes many reefs like the Scarborough Shoal.

Tough Times
In comments that could raise the stakes in the South China Sea, US President Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of State said the US should stop Beijing from constructing artificial islands and deny it access to them.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said during his Senate confirmation hearing. He compared China’s island-building in the disputed waters to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The Obama administration had challenged China by sending warships close to man-made islands on four occasions, but the talk of denying access to those features could significantly raise the risk of military confrontation. It wasn’t clear if Tillerson was referring to the islands with a Chinese military presence already established or those like Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing wrested from the Philippines in 2012 but hasn’t built on yet.

Blocking China’s access to the islands “could spark armed conflict,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I can’t help but think that he did not mean it this way.”

Retired Gen James Mattis told his own confirmation hearing for secretary of defence that China’s militarisation of the South China Sea posed a threat to the global order and stressed the importance of freedom of commerce and nurturing US alliances in the region.

“The bottomline is that international waters are international waters and we have got to figure out how do we deal with holding on to the kind of rules that we have made over many years that led to the prosperity for many nations, not just for ours,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

China’s Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper called Tillerson’s statements “astonishing,” while China Daily says they are not to be taken seriously “because they are a mish-mash of naivety, shortsightedness, worn-out prejudices, and unrealistic political fantasies.”

Getting Ready
The USS Carl Vinson battle group is on its way to the Western Pacific to augment the Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan — a move seen by China analysts as a sign that Donald Trump’s administration will ratchet up the US military presence in the South China Sea.

The Carl Vinson deployment coincides with the just-completed drills by China’s sole aircraft carrier in and around the South China Sea. The combat exercises involving the Liaoning, including takeoffs and landings by J-15 fighter jets and helicopters, have been closely shadowed by both Taiwan and Japan as China’s largest warship sailed past its nervous neighbours.

The carrier’s dispatch “shows that the Pentagon, including the US Navy, wants to extend Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy and further get involved in the West Pacific,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the state-run Global Times newspaper.

He said that facing pressure from the US, China needs to enhance building up of strategic forces and the construction of reefs and islands. “The waters are an effective manouvre to curb China, as 80 per cent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea. If the US controls the waters, it will be a blow to China,” he said.

The US emphasis on freedom of navigation through waters China considers its sovereign territory is likely to intensify under the Trump administration, the Global Times quoted Lin Zhiyuan, a scholar with the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Sciences, as saying. “Although the US relationship with the Philippines is deteriorating, it will continue colluding with Australia and India, as well as strengthen ties with Singapore, Vietnam and other Asean countries, in the hope of joint patrols,” he said.

Amidst this rising tension, the Philippines’ statement that it won’t raise its arbitration victory against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea during Southeast Asian summit talks being hosted by Manila this year, offers a glimmer of hope.