China pushes ahead in the South China Sea to create the reality of control over a vital part of the Pacific Ocean shipping lanes provide oil to Japan and South Korea, and where it is only challenged by the U.S. Navy. Tensions are growing. China has not heeded demands from the United States and other countries in the region to stop its program of dredging sand to create islands in the South China Sea and then occupying them with military personnel and building airstrips. Some suggest that much like it has done elsewhere, China will continue to expand what U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris has called the “Great Wall of Sand.”
This week, China denied permission for the USS John C. Stennis to enter the port at Hong Kong, while over the last year the risk of a super-power confrontation came when Chinese vessels shadowed U.S. Navy ships. Recently, China rebuked U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken for his remarks on what he called the impending "arbitration" of the South China Sea issue. Blinken told a House of Representatives hearing that China "can't have it both ways," by being a party to the international convention but rejecting its provisions, including "the binding nature of any arbitration decision."
The Philippines, for its part, is awaiting an international arbitration ruling at the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea. While a ruling is expected soon on whether or not China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea are legitimate, it is becoming increasingly clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is likely to intensify.
Of particular concern is the possibility that China may begin dredging up sand to build up Scarborough Shoal – a disputed reef that China called Huangyan Island – which is less than 125 miles from Subic Bay (where the former U.S. naval base was located) and well within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EZZ). China has made clear that it asserts sovereignty over the shoal. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying recently said, "I want to reiterate that the Scarborough Shoal is an inherent part of the Chinese territory. No matter what kind of action that China may take or not, it is something within the scope of China’s sovereignty.” China seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in early 2012, and it appears China intends to turn it into a military installation through reclamation.
Having long rejected claims by other nations, such as Malaysia, The Philippines, and Vietnam, over areas of the South China Sea, China argues that the growing U.S. military ties and presence in the region is to blame for rising tensions there. "We are strengthening our military role in the region, both unilaterally and through this wide range of partnerships and alliances we have, but that isn't in order to provoke anything,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter during a recent visit to the Philippines. “It's to continue to stand with the system of principles and peace and security that has kept, that has allowed this region to prosper for many decades here."
The U.S. Navy has several times sailed guided missile destroyers within waters claimed by China, and held frequent large-scale drills with its allies in the South China Sea.
A measure of the concern on the part of the Philippines came last month when a fleet of Japanese naval vessels visited, including a submarine, for joint exercises. The memory of the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines during the Second World War still lingers, but the current dispute with China may have dispelled those concerns. Concern over China’s intentions and actions taken are boosting international cooperation in the region.
The United States, Britain and others have urged Beijing to abide by the decision when it is finally announced. But China is showing no signs of shifting its stance. China has drawn Russia to its side, as well as Laos and Cambodia. Brunei has a claim on the disputed waters and is seeking bilateral resolutions to the dispute.
China has completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. The reef is claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam and is found in the western part of the Spratly Islands archipelago. Chinese media release photos and video of buildings, roads and lighthouses under construction at Fiery Cross Reef — known by the Chinese as Yongshu.
China treats virtually the entire South China Sea — a major international shipping lane that sees billions of dollars of trade and more than 100,000 vessels and 55 million tonnes of trade pass through annually — as its sovereign territory, even though Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim parts of the waterway.
Another party to the dispute is Japan, even though it has no territorial claims in the South China Sea. The South China Sea, however, is vital to Japan because the petroleum it needs passes through the vital shipping lanes there. During visits to Europe and Southeast Asia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida expressed "concerns" over China's program of reclaiming reefs and atolls as "militarization."
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have agreed to conduct coordinated patrols in areas in the South China Sea prone to pirate attacks, and to set up crisis centers to respond to maritime emergencies.
Indonesia President Joko Widodo said recently, “I have encouraged the military commanders to make clear standard operating procedures, so we can carry out our course of action together.” A hotline between the three countries will be established, as well as the sharing of intelligence and information. These “best practices” were derived from their experience of the Malacca Straits Patrol, which was established in 2006 by the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
China and Russia, playmates
Recently, Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, expressed their countries solidarity in confronting the U.S. and regional partners over the South China Sea, even though Russia is not a claimant in the dispute. “We are of the same view with Minister Lavrov that the disputes around the South China Sea should be settled peacefully through negotiations among the directly involved countries,” declared Wang. “We discussed the situation in the South China Sea,” Lavrov noted. “The Russian stance is invariable—these problems should not be internationalized—none of the external players should try to interfere in their settlement efforts.”
Besides the United States and Russia, another non-claimant asserting an interest in the area is India. Indian naval vessels have regularly visited Vietnam for years. A scare came in 2011, when a voice over the radio, identifying himself as the “Chinese Navy,” attempted to stop the Indian amphibious assault ship INS Airavat as it traversed international waters on its way to Haiphong.
China has been unrelenting in its diplomatic and military efforts and is running directly up against equally insistent regional disputants. Making it especially dangerous is that the sides to the dispute are ill-defined. In such a zero-sum game involving critical non-negotiable interests, it is difficult to anticipate what exactly might happen because it unclear what other powers will do in the event hostilities break out. While the United States could come out to defend the Philippines, Japan could enter as an ally. And in doing so, the United States could also face off with Russia as a result. One unknown factor is how the other nations that are now disputing China’s claims to the sea will react in the event of hostilities. Vietnam has vigorously pursued its claims to the South China Sea, but it is small and borders China. In this, China will likely have taken note that the U.S. may soon completely lift a decades-old ban on lethal weapons for Vietnam. Anticipation is growing in Vietnam over the issue because President Obama will visit this month. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently expressed approval of arms sales to Vietnam.
Respected military and diplomatic analyst Gordon G. Chang recently wrote of the growing tensions: “All the conditions for conflict, therefore, are in place in the South China Sea.” Chang likened the situation today to the panorama in the region of 1950. North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung calculated in June of that year that because then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson had left South Korea out of America’s Asian “defense perimeter,” no nation would come to its defense. Thus, he launched an attack that caused the Korean War. The United States came to South Korea’s defense, as did 15 other nations fighting under the UN banner. Once Kim was defeated, despite help from China and the Soviet Union, he lost territory when an armistice was signed three years later.
“The one thing we know is that no state will listen to Lavrov and Wang when they say that others should leave China alone, especially when Beijing uses aggressive military and diplomatic tactics against other claimants. And that means any incident, however minor or accidental, can flare up into a big-power confrontation.”