(map copyrighted BBC 2012)
Here’s something for all you realists (Clinton) out there…
It seems that China is beginning to make some very serious strategic moves in the South China Sea. The burgeoning regional power has in the past months been increasingly asserting itself in the disputed territorial waters lying off the mainland and Hainan coast. While Beijing claims a significant part of the waters and the scattered island groups (including the Scarborough Shoal, Paracel and Spratly island chains) as having been integral parts of the Chinese nation for some 2,000 years, rivals including Vietnam (who claim both the Paracels and the Spratlys have been under their sovereignty since the 17th Century) and the Philippines also lay claim to the waters. While the area does have important strategic importance (not the least of which the Malacca Strait), the area is also believed to have significant oil and gas resources that make the waters especially inviting to those countries that are attempting to keep their grip on these long contested territories.
China and the Philippines have come head to head over a small scattering of outcrops known as the Scarborough Shoal (or the Huangyan islands in China). The volcanic rubble lies approximately 160km from the Philippines and 800km from China, and following weeks of posturing, flag waving, and even some serious faux pas (in a wondrous blunder a Chinese newsreader referred to the entire Philippines as Chinese territory), the area has seen Philippine vessels (an ageing coastguard vessel and fishing boats) come face to face with somewhat more impressive Chinese naval strength, with neither side showing signs of stepping down.
The latest escalation in tensions has seen diplomatic pressure being applied to the Philippines, threatening tourism, wider media and public condemnation (which in the country is usually state censured and therefore in this case most certainly endorsed), as well as more instrumental moves including tightening import inspections. A statement in the Global Times ran “The Philippines needs to be taught a lesson for its aggressive nationalism. For China, the standoff over Huangyan Island is a matter of sovereignty. And now Manila needs to be defeated in this area… If the standoff escalates into a military clash, the international community should not be completely surprised”.
Moves in the Philippines are also increasing in intensity, with 1,000 protesters outside the Chinese embassy today calling for China to step down from its agressive stance. As the rally organiser stated, “Our protest is directed at the overbearing actions and stance of the government in Beijing, which behaves like an arrogant overlord, even in the homes of its neighbours.”
As the two countries continue to ‘dig-in’, what is of interest is the wider ramifications of any rising tensions in the area. While territorial disputes has been simmering gently under the surface for quite some time, recent Chinese and apparent aggression (or at least strongly-worded rhetoric for a state that is adverse to superlatives), seems somewhat out of character. Why has it chosen to take up the dispute so vocally at this point in time? China argues that the recent ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ of the US in the Asia Pacific has emboldened Manila, which is resting on the laurels of the 1951 Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
And this is of concern. With US assertion that it remains vested in the region, what will Washington’s response be to the increasing tensions? Even if it does not wish to become embroiled in a military intervention, it must abide by its San Fransisco ‘hub-and-spoke’ network of bilateral ties, for fear of setting off a domino effect as countries scramble to counter an apparent US abandonment of the region. And with the Chen Guangcheng debacle and the subsequent request by Beijing for a US apology, ties between the two key players are not on the sturdiest of footings at present. While we will inevitably (!?) see the easing of tensions and diplomatic side stepping, such incidents really do emphasise the possibility of a ‘flashpoint’ in the Asia Pacific as China continues to grow and extend itself across the region. Any spark could very quickly escalate into a realist ‘powder keg’. Realists and liberals and those of us sitting on the fence must all agree, US – China – ASEAN egoism and interests, economic and strategic interdependence, and regional security is beginning to get rather precarious.
As was eloquently put by a professor in a recent class, growing China is like an elephant sitting on the grass – it is bound to leave an impression on the area.