China’s recent actions in the South China Sea are nothing but unnecessary provocations. Apart from militarizing some of the islands it disputes with countries like Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Brunei and Vietnam, China has also taken some dangerous steps towards building some structures on a few of the contested islands. A not-so-strategic move that has invoked angry protests from the other concerned nations, including the United States that has been acting as a prominent peacemaker. It is generally believed among pundits that if America hasn’t deterred China by flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea, holding military drills with China’s rivals and parading the Sea with its state-of-the-art naval ships, China could have used its newly acquired military might to crush its opponents in the region.
Growing insecurity in South China Sea
The Philippines and other South-East Asian rivals have dragged China, because of the growing insecurity in the area, to the recently concluded 48th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Kualar Lumpur, Malaysia on August 4, 2015. Their unanimous decision to urge China to halt erecting buildings and military airfield on the disputed islands fell on deaf ears as China retorted that the issue is beyond ASEAN’s capacity. Chinese leaders’ defiance could be linked to their belief that China is militarily capable to defend its interest on the islands and can effectively quash any military offensive coming from all its competitors combined.
Another indication that Chinese leaders aren’t having sleepless nights about the issue is the fact that China has already converted seven outcroppings of reefs and shoals into artificial islands. A show of effrontery that had made American strategists feel that something awful is in the offing in the region. Will China up the ante and launch pre-emptive attacks on its Asian neighbors because of the hotly disputed islands? No one call tell. The current escalation of tension in the region has reached its crescendo, and any attempt for the world leaders to look on without confronting China land-grabbing tendency may be disastrous.
The United States’ position has always been straightforward but very complex. The US must defend the interests of its allies, most especially Japan and Philippines so as to stay loyal to its Security Pacts with them. As a matter of fact, the United States maintains a number of military bases in both countries and it will amount to arrant negligence on the part of the US if it fails to protect its troops that are stationed in those countries. This stance of the United States has made Chinese leaders wary of United States’ vow of impartiality. In other words, China considers the US as part of the South China Sea foes it must deal with. However, this perception has not stopped US strategists from trumpeting the US Government’s official line. Just of recent, Carl Baker, the programs director at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington said, “This has been the American position for what, almost two years now, saying that everyone should stop developing their particular areas they hold… But everybody knows that this is really directed at China,” he explained.
Philippines challenges China over islands claims
Will China ever listen to this clarion call for peace? The Philippines has sought a legal mediation by filing a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration to challenge China’s outrageous claims that it owns all the islands in the South China Sea, but China has unilaterally bowed out of such an arrangement, vowing not to participate in the legal proceedings. Here is a thoughtful poser: If China isn’t showing significant interest in peace, what are the Chinese leaders planning to do? Wage a crazy war? Although that cannot be completely ruled out!
Chinese officials have always downplayed the tension caused by their actions in the region. On recent official visit to Singapore, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister said that “At the moment the general situation in the South China Sea is stable, and China is steadfastly committed to working with the parties to maintain the situation which has not come easily. And we will never allow any country to destabilize the South China Sea,” Wang said.
China may have alluded to the United States as a possible threat to the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea imbroglio.
Secretary John Kerry didn’t hide his surprises during the ASEAN meeting in Malaysia: Holding a sideline meeting with Wang Yi, he told him the United States stands by its expectation to see the sea problem resolved peacefully. And that China’s approach to land reclamation at the South China Sea will only stoke more tension in the region. Wang, on the other hand, assured Secretary Kerry that China is only for peaceful resolution of the matter: But the whole world is waiting for Chinese leaders to fulfill their promises.
The truth is that Chinese leaders know what would be at stake if they willingly give up those Spratly Islands they had considered as theirs. The islands offer China unique opportunity to maintain its status quo as an economic and military leader in Asian sub-region. Security experts agree that China is adamant on building a 3,000-long airstrip on one of the seven islands on the Spratly in order to build a structure that can provide a landing spot for most of its military aircraft. And this strategic positioning of its military will give China a farther reach into South-East Asian maritime heartbeat.
The economic importance of the South China Sea
On the economic importance of the South China Sea, Chinese leaders may not want to be too reckless to expose their trades and businesses to outsiders’ influence. It is reported that China’s annual $5 trillion dollar ship-borne trades pass through the sea. If the other countries claiming ownership of the sea can have their way, it means Chinese trades will have to be subjected to external controls. Chinese commercial ships may be asked to pay some fees for navigating those islands, something Chinese leaders might not be entertaining at this moment as China’s economy stumbled on many counts in recent months and desperately needs a revival.
So, in the absence of any reasonable solution to this issue, will China call everyone’s bluff and forcefully occupy those islands in the months or years to come? Or will China choose the path of peace and call up meetings that will address the sea problem in order to retain its position in the world as a soft power? Whatever choice Chinese leaders go for, the United States is always there for its allies, to protect them, serve as a deterrent to China and work laboriously to see that the problem is resolved, if possible, with minimal or no military onslaught involved.
The world will become a better place if all the nations involved in this struggle can come together around the discussion table and iron out their differences. It is improper for China to outright refuse participating in legal proceedings. No one will like to witness an armed struggle in Asia that has already suffered economic hardships in recent years. Any mistake to let this dispute get out of hand and degenerate into a military offensive won’t only throw the region into a condition of hopelessness, but its effects will also spread everywhere, most especially to the United States and its Western allies that have business huge interests in Asia.