A Gathering Storm? The struggle for power and territory in the South China Sea

Foreign Affairs ISomething is stirring in the Far East. A dormant nationalism has awoken. Emboldened by economic growth and success at home, the decline and retreat of the West, and the weakness of their neighbours, China has claimed nearly the entire South China Sea as its own and is seeking total regional dominance. Faced by a rapacious, expansionist power, the other countries of Southeast Asia are forging new alliances and re-arming. Slowly, but surely, the march towards conflict has begun.

Since the ending of the Second World War, a relative peace with settled borders, imposed by the United States, and to a lesser extent the colonial powers of Britain and France, has been at play in Southeast Asia. But this fragile status quo has been degrading rapidly. The power of China has grown, and more and more nations now find themselves enveloped by its shadow.

Sovereignty of the South China Sea is not a new issue, with claims and counter-claims from China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Viet Nam, stretching back to the early 1800s. However, the situation has now taken a sinister turn. In 2013 China reasserted its claim to the “Nine Dotted Line”, a huge u-shaped swathe of the South China Sea that stretches to the shores of nearly all neighbouring countries and disregards all existing Exclusive Economic Zones. Official protests followed, with both the United States and India joining others in expressing grave concerns about China’s huge grab for territory. Despite being grounded in very tenuous and flimsy arguments, China has shown no sign of backing down from their claims. Reports of naval standoffs, island occupation, and clashes between isolated groups, have grown exponentially, and tensions are rising.

What is the motivation behind these claims? For China, it is three-fold. Firstly, resources. The South China Sea is intensely rich in fishing stocks. A fact that has seen many clashes and acts of sabotage between competing fishing fleets from rival countries. There are also believed to be vast oil wells beneath the sea, and potentially large deposits of natural gas; all worth an absolute fortune. Secondly, control of the South China Sea means control of the shipping lanes and the trade that passes through it. With the shipping lanes through the region thought to be even more lucrative than those of the Panama and Suez Canals, domination would lead to rich rewards. And finally, power. China’s claim, whilst extraordinary in scope, is a strong statement on the global scene. With China seeking to extend its power and influence abroad, complete control over their immediate surroundings is seen as a prerequisite to achieving the credibility necessary for stepping up their international presence.

The situation is further complicated by the rise of India as a regional power. Over the years, India’s foreign policy has become increasingly outward looking, with the resource rich South China Sea becoming ever more prominent in their thinking. India is also the only domestic power who can, along with China, put to sea a formidable navy and has the military strength to back up their words. Chinese hegemony of all Asia is an outcome that the Indian Government are desperate to avoid. So much, in fact, that a previously impossible alliance with Japan is beginning to take shape in an attempt to counter Chinese expansion and aggression. India’s willingness to join a coalition of nations looking to block Chinese ambition has seen their navy join both Japan and the United States in military exercises this summer.

The role of the United States is perhaps the most pivotal. Having implemented a policy of military disengagement in Europe and the Middle East under the Obama administration, they have been anything but pacifist in the Pacific. The US has lead military war games and exercises amongst a range a coalitions in recent times in the region, and has formed a particularly close relationship with Australia. In June this year both countries signed a new defensive pact allowing for the positioning of thousands of American troops, ships, and military equipment in Australia, designed to further ward off China.

The struggle over the Senkaku Islands in particular could push the whole region over the edge and into conflict. Uninhabited, and previously owned privately by a Japanese citizen, the islands were sold to the Japanese Government in 2012 after China had claimed the islands as their own. They have since been included in China’s controversial “Air Defence Identification Zone” in an attempt to cloud the sovereignty issue. The Chinese government has also been running a propaganda campaign at home to fan the flames of public opinion and, potentially, in preparation for taking the islands by force. In turn, the United States has reiterated it’s view that the islands belong to Japan, and therefore fall under Article 5 of the US-Japan defence treaty, requiring the Americans to come to the military defence of Japanese territory. As such, Japan is refusing to back down in the face of Chinese aggression.

Chinese reaction has been all too predictable. Believing themselves to now be the wounded party, their expansionist policies have taken on a new zeal, with a paranoia taking root. The situation is far more like the one which existed in 1914 Europe than some are willing to acknowledge. Strategic alliances, a regional arms race, a battle for resources, and a plague of deep suspicion, have created an environment remarkably similar to that immediately prior to the Great War, with China now playing the role of Imperial Germany.

With the world’s attention fixed on events in the Ukraine and Palestine, the battle for power in Southeast Asia is being largely ignored. But it continues none the less. A drift to war has begun and, unless Chinese foreign policy changes course, one incident has the potential to set the wheels in motion. The storm clouds are gathering.


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