In his book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, Robert D. Kaplan gave a scathing analysis of the volatile region which he predicted will dominate the future of geopolitical conflict. Indeed, Asia’s “cauldron” is set to boil once again. For months, it remained to be seen which country would switch to high on the stove, but now, both the U.S. and China have upped the ante.
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Today, the South China Sea is a flashpoint for future regional power struggles with serious international ramifications. China’s patient, yet unrelenting military buildup and appetite for renewed global naval hegemony and diminishing American budgets have played equal roles in adding more ferocity to the raging conflict that is the South China Sea.
The grieving claimants
Moving on from the American side of the story, it is important to study and analyze the grievances of other claimants of the South China Sea. Chinese construction projects on several reefs and islets have understandably irked the country’s Southeast Asian neighbors. For months, Chinese crews have been dredging and piling up sand for artificial islands, expanding reefs and islets, and building runways, small housing societies, piers, and other such facilities on several landmasses. In recent weeks, Vietnam has criticized and complained about the new lighthouses installed by the Chinese. The Philippines, on the other hand, is much braver due to Washington’s backing and has taken its claims to international courts. Manila has requested U.S. assistance to protect its supply lines in the area against possible Chinese harassment.
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Moreover, the waters are getting murkier after a tribunal in the Hague rejected Beijing’s assertion that territorial disputes in the South China Sea with the Philippines concerned China’s territorial sovereignty. The Hague’s rejection has now cleared the way for the court to hear seven submissions which Manila has made under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Taiwan first occupied an island in the Spratlys after the end of World War II and was soon followed by the likes of Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. All these states have built outposts and airstrips over the disputed territory. China was a relatively latecomer to the party in terms of its adventures in the aforementioned archipelago, which Beijing prefers to call the Nansha islands.
And although the Philippines, the closest country to the Spratlys, has troops stationed in the area, it would never have been able to be so vocal about Chinese expansion had it not had received strong backing from the United States. Vietnam, on the other hand, is in conflict with China’s aspirations for the Paracel islands, and only last year, the two states almost came to blows with one another after China installed exploratory oil rigs in the region.
Malaysian claims, however, are unique compared to those of its fellow claimants. Currently, the Malaysian military is sitting on three islands it considers to be within its continental shelf. Moreover, Malaysian claims are completely based on the continental shelf principle.
A hidden giant observing the South China Sea?
One thing which has not been discussed a lot in light of recent events in the South China Sea is the possible role of Russia in the grand scheme of things. Clearly agitated by U.S. naval maneuvers in what it perceives as a threat to its territorial integrity, it will not be a shocking event if at some point in the future, Beijing takes the help of Russia to protect its territory.
The Anti-Access/Area Denial doctrine has really made it hard for the West to counter the expansionist ambitions of the likes of Russia and China. Both states now boast A2/AD weapons, which means that they have already created conditions in which the likes of the U.S., Japan and other allied forces are likely to suffer heavy losses in the event of a conflict over the disputed waters.
And although he has not been very vocal about his view on the whole South China Sea debate, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Russian President Vladmir Putin test American nerves in the South China Sea and size up his adversary in a different territory. In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has developed a keenness towards improving its anti-submarine warfare technology, which has always been one of the greatest weaknesses for Beijing.
While nothing has been reported about a possible submarine deal between Russia and China, Moscow will probably not be against the idea of helping Beijing in this regard.
Ukraine may be miles away from the raging seas in the Pacific Rim, but events in Ukraine, especially if the country retaliates in response to Russian advances that resulted in the annexation of Crimea, could see Moscow look at the South China Sea as a possible pathway to strike back. In order to achieve his foreign policy agenda on a broader perspective, Putin is unlikely to have any qualms in providing China with the right A2/AD infrastructure to further its expansion in the disputed territory, which would not bode well for the U.S. and its allies.
Despite its obvious shortcomings and the fact that it is already busy on multiple fronts, possible Russian involvement aimed at strengthening Chinese presence in the South China Sea will make matters complicated for the United States and the remaining claimants.
Russia’s choice: China or Vietnam?
Russia’s global ambitions are definitely going to take it to the South China Sea; there is no doubt about that. It is inevitable that we will see Russia and China conducting a joint naval exercise in the region in the near future, and although this will force Moscow into choosing between China and Vietnam, it is clear that the Kremlin will not be torn for choice.
2015 has been a year that has witnessed an unprecedented surge in relations between the two countries. In May 2014, when Vietnam protested to China about the oil rig crisis, a lot of people in Hanoi were left disappointed about Moscow’s lack of a substantial statement. China, on the other hand, had the same reactions when the global community was left exasperated following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
However, considering the fact that Moscow still provides military and naval assistance to Vietnam, it means that somewhere down the road, the Kremlin could be forced to either choose between Hanoi or Beijing or do what could surprise the rest of the world by turning itself into a significant contributor to Southeast Asian stability and put a lid on a cauldron that is already simmering to a point of no return.
Stranger things have happened!
Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert D. Kaplan