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Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft May 21, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters
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Syed Ali Zia Jaffery |

Tensions have escalated in the South China Sea as China has expressed its anger over the passage of a US warship near the disputed islands in the South China Sea.The destroyer, the USS Stethem, sailed less than 12 nautical miles from tiny Triton Island in the Paracel Islands archipelago; the distance is commonly accepted as constituting the territorial waters of a landmass.

The incident happened hours before Xi Jinping had to talk to President Trump over a phone call. Trump was told by Xi Jinping that bilateral relations were being affected by some negative factors despite achieving some important results.Ties between the two countries took a turn for the better after both leaders met in Florida in April.

The honeymoon period was short-lived as over the past week the US has irked China.Last week Trump ratified a $1.3bn arms deals to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province

On Sunday, the Chinese foreign ministry took serious exceptions to US intrusions near the Xisha Islands.”Under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation,’ the US side once again sent a military vessel into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha Islands without China’s approval,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement. He added that such US behavior “violated Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty and disrupted the peace, security, and order of the relevant waters.”The statement added that Beijing would continue to take all necessary means to defend national sovereignty and security.

Read more:The New World Order: Where China, not the US, will govern!

The romance ends

The honeymoon period was short-lived as over the past week the US has irked China.Last week Trump ratified a $1.3bn arms deals to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province.The same day, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of laundering North Korean cash.Moreover, the State Department expressed concern about Beijing’s respect for freedom in Hong Kong, on the 20th anniversary of Britain ceding the territory back to China.And two days earlier, the State Department placed China on a list of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders.

Read more:China wants US and North Korea to ‘stop irritating each other’

The temporary romance was mainly owed to the fact the China assured the US that they would pressurize North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.China is responsible for 90% of North Korean trade and a key to the robustness of latest U.N. sanctions. In an apparent effort to keep Xi onside, Trump had suspended all freedom of navigation exercises through the South China Sea, through which $5.3 trillion of trade passes annually and China has been reclaiming and militarizing rocks and reefs. However, North Korea is brazen and has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile which it claims go hit targets anywhere in the world.North Korea continues to challenge the US and this new development will vitiate ties between Washington and Beijing.

Preponderance in the South China Sea

The US has stepped up its opposition to China’s incursions in the South China Sea. It is a vociferous opponent of Beijing’s Island-building in the sea. Last month Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that there is no room for negotiations on the issue as China’s activities are unlawful.“We oppose China’s artificial island construction and their militarisation of those features in international waters,” Tillerson said.Apart from the US, ASEAN member states have also raised objections to  China’s land reclamation activities deeming them as subversive and dangerous.

The war of words is a reflection of brewing tensions in the region. The main contention is the land reclamation on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by China. Island –building has been done in the past by Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, with the former two securing them through little military presence.  Despite being a late entrant in the reclamation spree, China has set the cat amongst the pigeons by not only its efforts to build the island but to have a heavy military footprint to gain a strategic edge. This is pretty much commensurate with Wei qi, as the player (China) is moving into open spaces to attain a favorable initiative. It is imperative to dabble into the advantages that China can reap by controlling swaths of territory in the South China Sea.

If China positions itself as the major hegemonic force in the South China Sea, it can prevail upon the five other claimants owing to it, having an absolute advantage in terms of military power.

As an expansive power, China needs to meet its ever-increasing energy needs. Sovereignty over the region has the potential of giving China access to abundant reserves of natural gas. Moreover, it must be stressed that China could dominate a major trading route, which will consequently perch China in a driving seat in more ways than one.

Read more:US & China: Battle of the Titans over North Korea

If China positions itself as the major hegemonic force in the South China Sea, it can prevail upon the five other claimants owing to it, having an absolute advantage in terms of military power.To realize these goals, China has done enough to ring alarm bells. In pursuance of its vital interests, China has been brazen in upping the ante in the seas, be it the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 or the southwards incursions along what China calls the “nine-dash line”.

Such actions have been considered as bellicose by Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries vying for a foothold in the South China Sea. Such apprehensions are veritable, to say the least. China has ameliorated its maritime paramilitary forces and naval prowess along modern lines to lend potency to its footings in the area. Furthermore, the aim of this build-up is to keep the US naval forces at bay.

What could be the ramifications of seemingly aggressive posturing on the sea? The milieu could change drastically if blusters simmer into pinpricks. The trade and economic significance of the Asia-Pacific has made confrontation and instability costlier. Additionally, it has made the US a major stakeholder in the conflict.

Though China and the US are not in a state of war with each other, still the famous “fog of war” proposed by Carl Von Clausewitz may precipitate an incendiary armed clash, which will have ominous repercussions on the even otherwise unstable region.There is also a great chance of skirmishes with contenders like Vietnam, who despite having a frail defense apparatus as compared to China, is determined to defend its interests.

The US has a multitude of interest in the containment of brinkmanship in the region. It can ill-afford hostilities in the sea, for it needs freedom of navigation and a pavement for unimpeded trade. In addition, the US has its credibility at stake if it is unable to deal with China’s so-called outrageous activities of land reclamation. The US will have to tread carefully in a quest to counter the evolving situation in a way that does not strain its ties with China to an extent that it is unable to garner its support in combating important global issues.

Read more: China closes US’ exit door from Iran nuclear deal

The most worrisome phenomenon is that in the past few years the likelihood of Sino-US armed conflict has increased. The US operates in China’s EEZ, holding that it is permissible under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has defenestrated such claims and has on many instances intercepted American reconnaissance flights. Though China and the US are not in a state of war with each other, still the famous “fog of war” proposed by Carl Von Clausewitz may precipitate an incendiary armed clash, which will have ominous repercussions on the even otherwise unstable region.There is also a great chance of skirmishes with contenders like Vietnam, who despite having a frail defense apparatus as compared to China, is determined to defend its interests.

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One can befittingly observe that China has increased its strategic advantage by playing on the feeble points of its actual and potential adversaries. The Philippines, Vietnam and other countries roughing it out for a hold in the South China Sea lack the military muscle to challenge China. Hence, China has augmented its military set up as part of its efforts to bolster its claims in the area.

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Analyst and Sub Editor at Global Village Space.He frequently writes on defense and strategic affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is a Research Analyst and Sub-Editor at Global Village Space (GVS). He frequently writes on defense and strategic affairs of South Asia.

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