Crisis looming in South China Sea
Posted on November 20th, 2015

Janaka Perera

Two Asian countries with which Sri Lanka has strong relations are now at logger heads. The possibility of it leading to a proxy war in the South China Sea (SCS) cannot be ruled out unless the tension building up in the region can be defused.

The SCS is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.  China continuing its construction of artificial islets off the disputed Spratly islands has become one of the bones of contention.

The crisis has pushed Vietnam closer to the U.S. the very country against which the Vietnamese fought a decade-long war which ended 45 years ago.   At the time China was backing the Vietnam National Liberation Front. Sri Lanka gave her strong moral support to Vietnam during her liberation struggle.

Since the end of the Cold War alliances have changed for the better or worse.  In the post-World War II years the focus of the U.S. and its allies was ‘containing Communism’. Now American policy is ‘containing China.’

Former Senior Sri Lankan Diplomat Bandu De Silva states: In an irony of fate (in history) Vietnam is now arming herself with U.S. weapons to counter China….India too is joining the fray to supply arms to Vietnam which is seen as an aspect of Sino-Indian competition”

It reflects the old saying: ‘The enemy of your enemy is your friend.’

It is understood that Japan – which has its own disputes with China – is now providing Vietnam with warships at no cost since the Japanese Constitution prevents their Self Defence Forces from engaging in overseas military operations.

According to Reuters Vietnam has also purchased three Russian built attack submarines and has three more on order as part of a $2.6 billion deal agreed in 2009.  The country’s air force too is being upgraded.

Russian-Vietnamese military cooperation is nothing new since the former Soviet Union supplied the Vietnamese with weapons to fight the French colonialists and resist U.S. military intervention which began in the 1960s.

In the current scenario the U.S. being drawn into a conflict between China and Vietnam cannot be entirely ruled out.

The last conflict the between the two countries was in 1979 when China invaded Vietnam after the latter’s troops helped to topple Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime which was backed by Beijing.

This region has today become the cockpit geopolitics in East, as political observers have noted. It covers three million square kilometres, with many territorial disputes over a number of small islands, islets, rocks and reefs. The growing tension poses a threat to the region’s stability. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines have competing jurisdictional claims over rights to exploit the region’s extensive oil reserves and gas.  The issue of navigation too has become contentious, particularly between China and the U.S. over the latter’s right to operate naval vessels to operate in China’s 200-mile economic zone.

Beijing is conducting reclamation work at various maritime features in the SCS.  Alleging that Beijing is attempting to change the legal status of such features the U.S. has declared that would be deploying naval vessels and aircraft near the elevations or rocks that China has turned into artificial ‘islands.’

In early April, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released an array of satellite images showing an airstrip of 3.1 kilometers completed around one-third in the Fiery Cross Reef, Spratly Archipelago.  The CSIS claims that in comparison to the previous images taken, China has built two airstrips of 468 meters and 200 meters (nearing completion).  These airfields can serve landing of almost all types of Chinese aircraft, according to aviation experts.

The New York Times in an April 17 news report quoting Prof. Peter Dutton, U.S. Naval College stated that such airstrips have adequate conditions for jet fighters and scouts to take off and land.  China is in a position to install radars and missiles to threaten regional claimants like Vietnam and Philippines.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned earlier in an interview with AFP that Beijing’s territorial claims and acts in the East Sea may lead to military confrontations. According to him China’s ongoing construction of the two airstrips in the Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs, which legally belong to Vietnam, has raised Manila’s security concerns.

On April 15, the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Lubeck, Germany, adopted for the first time in nearly 40 years, a Maritime Security Declaration on the East and South China Seas.  In its foreword, the Declaration emphasized, We continue to observe the situation in the East and South China Seas and are concerned by any unilateral actions, such as large scale land reclamation, which change the status quo and increase tensions….”

 The declaration has expressed strong opposition to any attempts to assert territorial or maritime claims through intimidation, coercion or force.

The Deputy Foreign Ministers of the U.S., Japan and South Korea (Republic of Korea) too expressed concerns after a meeting in Washington DC on April 16 about China’s acts, which they alleged, were moves to impose her sovereignty in the East Sea.

According to Donald R. Rothwell of Australia’s ABC News, if the U.S. launches naval operations in the South China Sea it will involve a number of American warships to emphasize what they call ‘freedom of navigation’ within 12 miles of the islands China has claimed. The U.S. however has steadfastly refused to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which has a total of 166 signatories.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has suggested that Australian warships be deployed in the South China Sea to express opposition to China’s island-building activity in the disputed waterway.

The perception of some political observers on this issue is quite different. According to the World Socialist Website Washington is exploiting China’s longstanding territorial disputes with other countries in the SCS purely to America’s own advantage. It is encouraging the Philippines and Vietnam to aggressively assert their claims and forge closer relations with the U.S. and its allies, particularly Japan and Australia, states the WSW.

Australia has agreed to have a naval presence in the area but so far has given no indication it would join any U.S. naval operations in the region.

Vietnam is fortunate that the Americans have perhaps realised during the past several decades that non-interference in the former’s internal affairs is a better strategy to serve U.S. interests in the region, despite political and ideological differences between the two countries.

One Response to “Crisis looming in South China Sea”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    Freedom of navigation is just BS.

    When tensions rise in CSC, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. turn to RUSSIA to buy weapons!! Higher the tensions more the sales.

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