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Spratly Islands: A New Geo-Strategic Game?

The recent sharpened hostility between China on the one hand and Vietnam and the Philippines on the other, over the South Sea Islands of the Spratly group needs to be dissected more deeply to there is more than a squabble over territory.

Of course, territory is at the core no doubt. There is reported to be huge oil and gas deposits in the sea bed of these islets, reefs and coves, and energy or the lack of it has become vital to all concerned especially for China. China’s economic engine is becoming more dependent on imported energy, and recent Chinese moves suggest safeguarding its energy sources near and far has become an unstated “core issue”. As defined by the Chinese officially, core issues are those that must be protected and secured by any means including military.

China claims the entire Spratly group and the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, but the evidence proferred by it from time to time remains less than convincing. The other part claimants are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Their claims are small and well within their coastal waters. Taiwan, which is also in occupation of some reefs, holds a position same as that of China as per the old Guomingdang (Kuomingtang) doctrine that the two will unite some day when China gives up communism. China initiated the Code of Conduct Declaration (COD) in 2002 with the other claimants that issues will be resolved peacefully and till then there should be joint development of resources. The COD would never work. The Chinese conducted themselves on the principle, “what is mine is mine, what is yours is also mine but we are willing to share yours”.

China has sanctioned foreign oil companies that worked with Vietnam and the Philippines on oil and gas exploration surveys. Last year, a Chinese submarine planted a Chinese flag on the bed of the South China Sea. Most recently, Chinese maritime surveillance vessels, a fleet that is set to expand exponentially, have been cutting cables of Vietnamese and Philippine survey ships.

Tension escalated with the Vietnam navy conducting a 9-hour live fire exercise along its coast (June 13) which it described as routine. It brought strong reactions from China.

China’s PLA mouthpiece, the Liberation Army Daily (LAD) warned (June 14) Vietnam’s live-fire military exercise will intensify tensions in the region. An op-ed article by highly politically connected Li Hongmei in the Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily (June 15) commented, “China needs military foresight and it is advisable to make some preparation for action”. Li Hongmei, who is the editor of the on-line edition of the People’s Daily, is apparently the voice of a section of the Chinese leadership which is prone to take a hardline. China also despatched its largest maritime surveillance ship to the South China Sea on its way to Singapore. The English language China Daily (June 17) disclosed that in view of the escalating tension in the South China Sea, the China maritime surveillance (CMS) force will be expanded to 16 aircraft and 520 vessels by 2020 from the current nine aircraft and “more than” 260 surveillance vessels.

This does not mean China is ready to increase hostility to a point of serious military clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines. At most, if Vietnam continues with its brinkmanship, there could be minor clashes on the seas. Neither Vietnam nor the Philippines possess military strength to match any where what China has, though Hanoi is bolstering its capability enough to hurt China if the PLA navy invaded Vietnamese waters. The Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino told visiting Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie in May that though his country was no match to China militarily but if China continues to provoke they would be forced to take steps to protect themselves. It was also reiterated that the Philippines has a defence treaty with the USA. The US ambassador to Manila openly declared earlier this month that the US was with the Philippines on all issues including the South China Sea.

China is watching with concern American strategic penetration in the region. A US destroyer would head to Vietnam’s Da Nang port in July to conduct a search and rescue drill. The Japan-based aircraft carrier USS George Washington has left its base for deployment through the region which will certainly include the South China Sea. There are, of course, pre-scheduled engagements that have nothing to do with the recent escalation of tensions in the South China Sea. But Beijing will see it in a much larger context of containment of China.

From the time US President George W. Bush entered into the Iraq war in 2000 and the Afghan war following the “9/11” terrorist attack on the US, China had a free ride in the region. Without an American cover, the smaller neighbours of China had no option but to succumb to China’s comprehensive might. America had retracted from the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s assertiveness emerged from the following: (i) US withdrawal from this region, (ii) the 2008 global economic meltdown which convinced China that US power was in decline and China was rising to replace it – something demonstrated with impunity, (iii) Japan was a collapsing power centre in Asia, and the European Union (EU) could be bullied into submission on trade issues, and (iv) China’s military power demonstrations in 2008 and 2009 convinced it that it was impregnable and could deny area access to the US Navy in its maritime environment especially around Taiwan.

After a long hiatus from the Asia-Pacific region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought the US back to the region from mid-2009. Mid-2010 was a watershed in this strategic review, in the face of China’s force projection. There is a wide swath of issues starting from China’s clash with Japan on the disputed Diaoyu (Japanese Senkaku ) islands in Japan’s possession, protection of North Korea in Pyongyang’s military attacks against South Korea in 2010, and China’s moves to legitimise South China Sea as its sovereign territory.

China tried to persuade the US in 2010 to accept its sovereignty over the South China Sea, but Clinton made it clear that it was in US’s national interest to keep the sea lanes of the South China Sea free for international navigation.

The South China Sea is a critical navigational waterway in this region which is used from the west of the Indian Ocean to East Asia. If China controls this sea space it will dictate maritime traffic, both civilian and military, across what a Chinese strategic theory predicted in 2004-2005, from the Western Line (Middle East and Eastern Africa) to the Eastern Line (Asia-Pacific region). This is the critical mass of China’s geostrategic pursuit for control. This is a severe challenge for all concerned, and cannot be allowed.

This is a matter that a whole stream of countries across half the globe at least must be alert to. An international debate on this issue has become urgent.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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