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The Brink of War in the South China Sea?

Escalating contention over the South China sea has been big news in the East for many years. In the west it receives some news coverage but is largely unknown; despite the US now making it’s pivot towards the East in order to protect US interests in the face of perceived aggressive Chinese expansion.

There are many conflicting territorial claims. China, Indonesia, Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia have claims which in many cases overlap. Each country has sovereignty over the sea within 12 nautical miles from the lowown coast, yet some of these claims interfere with even that international law.

Why do they care so much about owning the sea? Well, the South China sea is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. So far trade has proceeded unaffected, but what if one country controlled the entire waterway? That’s the fear for most ASEAN countries. A secondary matter are the natural resources in terms of oil; of which some 230 billion barrels worth are supposed to be extractable around the Spratly Islands. It’s not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, but those countries involved in the disputes wouldn’t want to surrender their claims. A third reason is military expansion and intimidation.

Most of the news articles on the South China sea published in the West focus on China’s creation of an artificial island in the Paracel Islands; complete with a harbor and airstrip. The concern is that China can use this as a platform from which to try to control traffic around the South China sea, and if it came down to it, as a base from which to attack any country in the region. And those concerns are well founded.

China has tried to force Japanese air traffic to request permission to cross the region; a request which was ignored. The Chinese military (or fishing boats manned by military personnel) will attempt to chase off any vessel coming too close to the contested islands. Boats have been sunk, and China has shown before that it is willing to go to the brink of war to protect their claims. In 1974 over 50 Vietnamese personnel were killed when the PRN Navy asserted China’s claim over the Paracels. If that had happened a few years earlier when South Vietnam had a closer relationship with the USA, it might’ve led to war. Then again in 1988 over 60 were killed in conflict over the Spratly Islands.

In 2014 China placed the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in what is considered Vietnamese waters. Vietnamese fishing boats tried to block the rig, but were beaten away by Chinese fishing boats. The outrage in Vietnam was instant. Chinese businesses and people were attacked resulting in several deaths.

So, what can be done? China is at present unwilling to negotiate on the South China Sea. They don’t really have to; nobody is daring to stand up to them. China seems confident that by occupying as much of the South China sea as possible that in time it will just be accepted. They might well be right. Certainly only the USA has the ability to stand up to China militarily, but the US Navy’s role in the region is one of posturing. The PLA Navy only needs maintain the status quo to effectively assert the majority of their claims.

So, what are the origins of the contesting claims, and who may be right? We’ll examine that next time.

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