Southeast Asia is the battleground for an international war being waged over a group of floating political symbols – the disputed islands of the South China Sea
China has aggressively staked its claim over the 3,500,000 square km territory that encompasses a string of more than 200 islands of various sizes, including the Spratly and Paracels, even going as far as planting a flag via submarine on the ocean floor 3,760 metres below sea level. Control over the islands is an important issue, as almost every Asean country has claimed ownership over one or more island, yet the real motive for Asean is maintaing dominance of the sea over China.
The South China Sea is a vital shipping route for whichever country (or countries) can hold territorial rights over it, in addition to its rich commercial fishing areas and oil and natural gas fields. It also plays an important role for Northeast Asia which relies heavily on the flow of oil and commerce through South China Sea shipping lanes, which includes 80% of the crude oil to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
China claims complete sovereignty of up to 80% of the South China Sea, which includes the Spratly and Paracel Islands, intentionally stepping on the toes of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Yet in July, at a meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Hanoi, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boldly stated that the US “supports a collaborative diplomatic process for resolving the various disputes” over the South China Sea, despite Chinese repeated requests not to broach the issue. Clinton also elaborated that the US could offer its services as a mediator and that they oppose “the use or threat of force by any claimant”.
Vietnam appeared to embrace the olive branch offered by the US, conscripting them as an unlikely ally against China’s increasingly aggressive role in the South China Sea. The two countries staged a joint military exercise in August, sending an authoritative message to Beijing. Coming 35 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the visit officially marked the 15th anniversary of the normalisation of relations between the two countries.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese media, alarmed at the bold moves made into Southeast Asia by Washington after being warned to stay out of the region, was clearly put on the defensive. The China Daily called the exercise the start of a US effort to create an “Asian NATO” to quash Beijing’s rising influence in the region. The US Navy’s plans to step up its maritime presence in the South China Sea for the foreseeable future in order to ensure free navigation through its vital sea lanes, didn’t help calm China’s image of the US as a threat – especially since the they plan to include their nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington in future exercises.
However, not all countries in the region are quick to align with the US. Representatives from the Philippines said in early August that Southeast Asian nations did not require US involvement in solving territorial disputes with China over the potentially resource-rich waters.
Alberto Romulo, the foreign secretary of the Philippines, told reporters that negotiations should be strictly between Asean and China, without any foreign interference, especially from the US – which, geographically speaking, is nowhere near the disputed territory. When asked if he supported Clinton’s earlier comments that hinted at increased US involvement in the South China Sea debate, Romulo bluntly replied “No.”
“It’s Asean and China. Can I make myself clear? It’s Asean and China. Is that clear enough?” Romulo asked.
Yet just days later another military PR gesture, dubbed the Philippines-US Mutual Defence Board meeting, took place in Manila, in which Admiral Robert Willard, the head of US Pacific Command, commented on China’s “assertive” behaviour in the South China Sea.
“We discussed the assertiveness that we’re experiencing by the Chinese in the South China Sea and the concerns that that has generated within the region,” he said at a news conference.
“It’s very important that the governments in the region invest in sufficient militaries and security apparatus to protect their respective territorial waters. “This is about preventing conflict, not allowing any of the circumstances in the region to lead up to a shooting war,” said Willard.
Though most, if not all, Asean countries don’t have the military capabilities to adequately defend their claims of island ownership in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ military chief Lt. Gen. Ricardo David said that due to the country’s outdated ships and airplanes, their presence and defence capabilities in the disputed area is “almost negligible”.
At the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi in July, Clinton stressed that the US position isn’t necessarily to become the judicator of free trade and open navigation of the South China Sea and its mineral resource deposits. Instead, it hopes these goals can be achieved through multilateral discussion between China and Asean. China, however, is vehemently opposed to this approach, preferring to negotiate claims on an individual basis, which would help them gain strategic leverage over the territory by applying specific political pressure to each individual country.
So why is the US so adamant in its efforts to maintain a presence in the region while urging Asean countries to build-up their militaries for future preventative measures?
The reason is that China has been systematically modernising and expanding their military arsenal behind closed doors, in a move that the US sees as intentional intimidation, which then forces them to take premeditative diplomatic action in the region. In a report released by the Pentagon in August titled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010, the US Department of Defense characterised the military expansion as “extended-range power projection”.
The main concerns in the report are that China is developing a large arsenal of medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, electronic attack warfare, effective long-range air defence systems, computer network attack capabilities, advanced fighter aircrafts, counter-space technology and submarines equipped with advanced weaponry. The People’s Liberation Army Navy, which is the largest naval force in Asia, has also been modernising its nuclear force, which now has a range in excess of 11,000km, with most of continental US under potential threat.
One weapon in particular is of great concern to the US Navy due to its devestating capabilities in the South China Sea – the anti-ship ballistic missile, which is also called the “carrier killer” for the damage it can inflict on aircraft carriers in particular.
A successful anti-ship ballistic missile could have a range of 1,500km, is armed with a manoeuverable warhead and when combined with advanced control systems, could be launched from the mainland coast of China, with the disputed islands of the South China Sea well within scope. Admiral Willard stated in an August press conference in Tokyo that the US would not be deterred from deploying vessels in the region because of the missile, but the development of this weapon has become a clear threat that the US doesn’t want to take a chance on.
“Many uncertainties remain regarding how China will use its expanding military capabilities,” reads the Pentagon report. “The limited transparency in China’s military and security affairs enhances uncertainty and increases the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.”
One can only hope that a diplomatic, balanced solution can be reached before the potential powder keg of uncertainties is realised.
“[The US-China] relationship has not been without disagreement and difficulty,” says US President Obama. “But the notion that we must be adversaries is not pre-destined.”