It is all about the confrontation between China (and, apparently, also Russia now) from one side, and the US and its allies from the other side, over the vast South China Sea, a body of water larger than the Mediterranean.
These tiny islands are located at the very middle of one of the key routes of shipping traffic, the total amount of which amounts up to $5 trillion per year. Furthermore, this is a highly important fishing area, at the bottom of which rich oil deposits are likely to be found.
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For many decades, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have insisted that all or part of the islands belong to them. But recently, the conflict has hit the critical phase.
The area has been long recognized as sea-lanes under international law. However, since the islands have runways for military flights as well as huge potential for large-scale construction of military bases and airstrips, Beijing is not so eager to let them go.
There have been reports about China’s heavy weapons being deployed to the area, which worries not only the US, but also the Asian neighbors.
Asian neighbors are beefing up amid the growing war fears
Japan, one of US closest allies and partners, reinforced its naval force amid the growing war fears, while Taiwan makes a decision to secure nuclear weapons; South Korea has put its military units on alert and Philippines carried out a number of military drills in the area.
The US, for its part, is planning to deploy its warships and warplanes to the 12-mile zone around the new Chinese military base.
Furthermore, US naval aircraft have made a number of fly-through missions over the disputed islands in an attempt to prevent China from making claims of sovereignty. However, they fly away after Chinese planes attempt to intercept.
From the US actions, it is clear that the Obama administration is not going to hand over the control over South China Sea quite easily. However, do the Chinese care much?
The Chinese have enough running room to do whatever they want
Several senior officials from the People’s Liberation Army have recently visited the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and joined a series of discussions with leaders of Asian and Western countries.
At the event, it has become apparent that Chinese officials are feeling confident and have little respect for the Obama administration, which has been making accusations but doesn’t seem to have adopted a clear strategy yet.
“A member of the PLA asked me whether, in 18 months if Hillary Clinton is elected president, will she be much tougher on China than the current administration,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I said, ‘The premise of your question is that in the next 18 months you have enough running room to do whatever you want.’ He just laughed,” Bloomberg reports.
The Chinese are known for their inability to easily retreat from a conflict, which makes the South China Sea conflict even more dangerous and has a high chance for escalation.
With the 2016 election, the conflict may lead to a war
In his book ‘Roots of War’, Richard Barnet defines the US foreign policy as “permanent war” with a belief that Washington must remain “number one in the world.”
However, judging by the US rather soft actions against Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe, it can be concluded that the current US administration is unwilling to challenge any aggression and may be perceived as ‘weak’ by other countries, which is probably the case with China.
China saw that the US can be pushed, and it is unclear whether there will ever be a better chance to make claims over the disputed islands than there is now. However, the Obama administration is on its last legs and when the new President is elected in 2016, the current conflict may eventually lead to a war.
Especially given the fact that there are apparently two aggressors acting together in this conflict now.
Russia and China team up against the ‘US threat in the region’
It was reported yesterday that Russia and China are planning to carry out bilateral naval military exercises in the South China Sea, according to comments by Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov.
The exercises are set to include Moscow’s allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region, though Antonov did not go into details as to what countries, apart from China, would participate in the exercises.
It is important to note that Russia has close relations with several Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, which Russia provides its arms to. However, what is even more interesting is that China is involved in disputes over the islands and reefs with four Southeast Asian countries – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The point of Antonov’s comments lies in the fact that China and Russia view the US as the number one destabilizing factor in the South China Sea.
US will not back down
With the apparent escalation of the conflict, the chances of shots being fired now stand at better than 50-50, says Bernard Cole, a retired Navy captain and China expert.
However, the military confrontation is likely to be between China and the Philippines or Vietnam, rather than between Beijing and Washington.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has made clear statements in recent days that Washington would not back down.
“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world,” Carter said at the Shangri-La defense conference in Singapore.
“After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”