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Ramping Up Tensions in the South China Sea; By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami

C3S  Fortnightly Column No. F013 /2015

The United States seems to have made its point one more time– that it will not accept restrictions on navigation and air space in the South China Seas. This time around the message has come from the U.S.Secretary of State, John Kerry in his meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Kuala Lumpur. “Despite assurances that these freedoms will be respected, we have seen warnings issued and restrictions attempted in recent months. Let me be clear: The United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea,” Kerry remarked.

Washington is not the only one which has called for restraint in the South China Seas that in recent times has been the focus of attention, thanks to what Beijing has been saying and doing. Particularly irksome to those countries that have competing claims is China’s blatant attempts at land reclamation and even going to the extent of building an airstrip. Countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines see in the Chinese manoeuvres a deliberate attempt to militarise the area that is critical to vital shipping lanes.

Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, recently said that his country has stopped land reclamation efforts but Washington and others are not convinced of how true this may be.”What’s really needed though is an agreement to stop not just the reclamation but the large-scale construction and militarization”, Kerry said. In fact non-claimant countries like India and Japan have also voiced concern of any restriction of navigation or use of air space. But Beijing on occasions appears intent on upping the ante.

China will have to understand that stability and security in the South China Seas is not going to come by acts of belligerence; nor can it accept claimants to meekly give their rights away. What is happening in the process is that it is hardening the stance of many within the Asia Pacific to take on China, politically, diplomatically and even strategically. States of the ASEAN who are major claimants are not about to give up their claims just because the regional association is unable to come up with an agreed phraseology in joint statements on the territorial dispute.

The aggressiveness of China is not just with the Spratlys; in recent times Beijing has been needling Japan over the Senkakus focing the conservative leadership in Tokyo to looks for ways in over coming the challenge. The Security Treaty with the United States is still in tact, but Japan is actively seeking to expand its security and strategic cooperation with countries like India and Australia. And adding to the ongoing disputes and tensions in the South China Seas and beyond is the renewed military and strategic  cooperation between China and Russia.

In upping the ante in the South China Seas  and in East Asia, the leadership in China is unwittingly lending support to the right wing hawks in Japan who are quite eager in re-writing the peace constitution as also breach established norms on defence spending. The political right wing in Japan has constantly been harping on the twin threats of China and North Korea and has been pushing for a new political environment that had been imposed on the country in the aftermath of the second world war. China and other nations in East and South East Asia still vividly remember the horrors of Japan and the second world war.

Frightening still is the implication of an aggressive China and a mercurial North Korea on the future of Japan’s nuclear program. A country that has first hand knowledge of the horrors of a nuclear holocaust may also be giving second thoughts on the nuclear route given the dangers posed by Chiana and North Korea. Already there is a school of thought that believes that Japan is only a “screwdriver” away from being a member of the nuclear club. The bellicosity of Beijing and Pyongyang could well make this a reality.

* (Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami has been a senior journalist with The Hindu in Chennai, Singapore and Washington and currently Heads the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications  at SRM University, Chennai and can be reached at Views expressed here are personal.)

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