October 16, 2011

South China Sea: A new geopolitical node

By Prokhor Tebin


Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

For a long time, the planet's geopolitical nodes were situated in Europe, namely the Balkans and Alsace and Lorraine. For 20 years after the dissolution of Soviet Union geopolitical node of the planet was Middle East. Now it's safe to say that the new geopolitical node is the South China Sea.

It is the South China Sea where interests intersect for the major global players: the United States, Japan - as the No.2 power, and the rising giants of Asia, China and India. On its coastline or near

it are seated many rapidly developing countries - Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore. The countries of Southeast Asia account for nearly 10% of world population, and 2.5% of global GDP.

Sea-trade is foundation of global economy: 90% of world's commerce travels by sea. It is the second most used sea lane in the world - over 50% of the annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. The Strait of Malacca accounts for nearly 10 millions barrels of crude oil every day. There are enormous mineral and fishing resources, and the South China Sea is estimated to hold about 7 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

At the same time, a lot of threats to the national security of regional and out-of-the region countries are associated with those waters. These threats could be divided into three types.

The first type is socio-economic threats. Despite rapid economic growth Southeast Asia is one of the poorest regions of the world. More than a half of population lives on less than $1 a day. Illiteracy also remains among the highest. A substantial part of the population has problems with food, drinking water and medicines. The situation is only getting worse because of frequent natural disasters; the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami was the strongest among them, but not the only one.

This unpleasant socio-economic situation is a source of the second type of threats - irregular ones. The South China Sea is second most dangerous pirate-infested region of the world after the Somali coast and Horn of Africa. International terrorism menace is also obvious, especially for such states as Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. Many terrorist organizations operate in region, many of them with ties to al-Qaeda - Jemaah Islamiyah, Abu Sayyaf, the Maoist New People's Army and others. Southeast Asia (the Golden Triangle) is, together with Afghanistan and Central Asia (the Golden Crescent) and Latin America, one of key centers of illegal drug trafficking. Other types of illegal activity also prosper. All these facts lead to increasing of domestic instability. Almost every state has its own sources of political, ethnic or religious conflicts. The 2006 coup d'้tat and ensuing wave of political instability in Thailand is only one of many examples.

The third, and perhaps most important type of threats in the region of South China Sea is regular, traditional threats of interstate conflict, including unresolved territorial disputes between China, Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. China claims most of the South China Sea as well as the Paracel and Spratly islands. China's government uses the so-called nine-dash map, whose eligibility is fiercely disputed, primarily by Vietnam and Philippines. According to President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines: "China's 9-dash line territorial claim over the entire South China Sea is against international laws, particularly the United National Convention of the Laws of the Sea".

Authoritative Chinese newspaper Global Times said in recent article "The South China Sea is the best place for China to wage wars. Of the more than 1,000 oil rigs there, none belongs to China; of the four airfields in the Spratly Islands, none belongs to China". Chinese Navy commander Admiral Wu Shengli stated "how would you feel if I cut off your arms and legs? That's how China feels about the South China Sea".

Then there is the possibility of conflict between Taiwan and mainland China. Beijing seeks peaceful reunification according to Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" doctrine, but an armed conflict cannot be excluded. Reunification with Taiwan is a task of paramount importance. It is necessary for China's national consolidation and security. Reunification will break the First island chain and question the US policy of China containment.

"As we obtain absolute security of our own maritime lifeline, it also implies absolute control over Japan's maritime lifeline", says Professor Ni Lexiong, a proponent of Chinese sea power. This is also true for South Korea and for countries in the South China Sea.

Finally, there is a possibility of conflict between China and India. Relations between the two Asia giants have always been uneasy, and in the next decade tensions could escalate. China is developing a system of diplomatic, military and political ties in Indian ocean under the "String of Pearls" doctrine and India is attempting to forge closer and deeper integration with its neighbors in South East Asia under its "Look East" policy. These two opposing doctrines clash in South China Sea.

On July 22 after sailing 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, Indian landing ship INS Airavat was called on an open radio channel by someone identifying himself as the "Chinese Navy". "You are entering Chinese waters," the radio caller said, according to the India Government. This case was likely someone's silly joke, but it is another evidence of growing tension in Indo-Chinese relations in the region, especially after Vietnam and India's launch of a joint oil project in the South China Sea brought a negative reaction from Beijing. China has begun to pay special attention to its sea power over the past decade. According to the former US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, China has the fastest-growing navy in the world today. Chinese President Hu Jintao called China a "sea power" and advocated a ''powerful people's navy'' to ''uphold our maritime rights and interests".

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) consists of about 200 ships excluding auxiliary and mosquito fleet. According to the US Department of Defense about 55% of submarines and 25% of surface combat ships are modern, highly capable ships. The role of China's first aircraft carrier Shi Lang and the ballistic anti-ship missile DF-21D are overestimated, but Chinese conventional submarines, destroyers and small attack craft are underestimated.

India is also increasing its sea power. It develops its own shipbuilding industry and actively buy ships and other naval technology abroad. The largest projects are building of India first indigenous nuclear submarine, purchase of Russian carrier, frigates and French conventional submarines. Other states also pay increasing attention to development of theirs navies. According to Bob Nugent, the vice-president of Ami Intrnational, the Asia-Pacific region will be the second-largest naval market after the United States in the next 20 years.

In turn, the Unites States, while remaining military and naval superpower, faces a decline in its potential in region. This is due to defense spending cuts, the heavy burden of global commitments and its naval forward presence. On top of that, the national debt is America's biggest security threat, according to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. China is largest holder of US national debt and also its largest trading partner.

This whole set of challenges and threats will largely determine world politics in the coming decades. The European Union, Russia, Brazil and other out-of-the-region powers should take this into account.

Prokhor Tebin is a PhD student at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Science.

(Copyright 2011 Prokhor Tebin.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

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