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The South China Sea, The Upcoming Superpower Conflict
Junzi
post Jan 3 2011, 05:58 AM
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I. Introduction

A hypothetical major conflict between the United States and People’s Republic of China (PRC) is usually envisioned in terms of the potential powder keg of Taiwan and cross-Strait relations. However, the most likely rub for friction between the two superpowers in the 21st century may, in fact, actually lie thousands of kilometers further south in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea has been almost entirely neglected in the past by the United States in the course of Asian endeavors. Recently however, Taiwan has faded from the agenda between Beijing and Washington while the South China Sea has gradually risen in importance. With the recent 2008 landslide election victory for Ma Ying-Jeou and the China-friendly Kuomintang party, the prospect of a major superpower war over Taiwan seems more distant than ever, and may in fact have been forever averted as a realistic possibility.

II. The South China Sea Region

The significance of the South China Sea cannot be understated. As a strategic waterway, the second-most usedsea lane in the world, nearly half of the entire world’s trade shipping passes through the Sea, including 90 percent of all oil headed towards U.S. allies such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. In addition, the Sea itself is vastly rich in petroleum, natural gas, fish, and other valuable resources.



The South China Sea is claimed in part or whole by six nations in the region; namely, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. (Japan and France also had claims to the region previously, but have since abandoned them. Brunei is unique in that it makes no claim to islands, only to waters.) However, nearly all disputes are viewed in the context of China and China mostly, because Beijing has the largest claims to demand in the region and is by far the most powerful of all the claimants when push comes to shove.

Clashes in the region have been frequent and violent. In the past few decades there have been the Mischief Reef incidents of 1995 where Filipino forces blew up Chinese territorial markers and buoys, the killing of 70 Vietnamese sailors at the Chigua Reef by the Chinese in 1988, and the 1974 Chinese seizure of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974. And the potential for conflict remains very high; clashes between military vessels occur on an almost annual basis up to today. As the United States begins to play a greater role in the region, the South South China Sea may eventually become one of the most volatile crisis hot spots in the world.


III. International Law and UNCLOS

Issues of international maritime law are devilishly tricky to sort out in the South China Sea, a body of water dotted by hundreds of island archipelagoes. In many cases, legal zoning limits mean that there is overlapping of territorial claims among the nations involved.

Maritime law was very murky and confusing prior to 1982 as there was no set standard and many coastal states claimed different limits to their territorial waters. The customary limit to one’s territorial waters had been 3 nautical miles, but definitions varied and were disputed in many separate instances.

In 1982, the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) expanded the 3-mile baseline to a zone of 12 nautical miles. These were “territorial waters.” Among other significant reforms adopted by UNCLOS was also that nations were given a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending from their shores in which they controlled all resources to be found in these waters.

An unintentional side effect of UNCLOS was that territorial quarrels over islands became more contested and heated than ever before, since islands were now newly significant given the fact that the host nation could now claim as territorial waters everything within the 12-mile radius of water surrounding the island – not to mention a 200-mile surrounding EEZ. This has also greatly magnified the dispute among China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states in terms of ownership of the many islands and archipelagoes in the South China Sea.

One of the most controversial articles in UNCLOS deals with “straight baselines.” Under a certain interpretation of the provisions of UNCLOS, a nation may draw straight territorial lines if there are many islands within its own body of water. This provision is in part the cause of China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

Under this logic, China has claimed nearly the entire South China Sea for its own, drawing a famous “U-Shaped Baseline” that contains nearly all territory in the South China Sea, on the grounds that the PRC claims nearly all of the island archipelagoes in the region and can rightfully encircle all of them within a single water baseline – contiguous to the motherland. Some academic scholars have blasted this interpretation, saying that the United States could easily by similar logic claim half of the entire Pacific Ocean, citing Hawaii and Alaska’s position in the far west and drawing straight baselines to enclose the area of sea that they contain. Other ASEAN nations have protested similarly on the grounds that they have just as much rightful claim to the South China Sea islands as the PRC does, and hence could use the straight-baseline method to stake out nearly the entire Sea for themselves as well if they chose to.

IV. Interests at Stake

a. The People’s Republic of China

Beijing needs energy more than it has ever before. China’s national thirst for oil is going to become greater and greater as its economy continues to expand by leaps and bounds, a demand for oil that is shared by the entire Asian economic region as a whole and which exacerbates the nature of the South China Sea dispute. As mentioned, the need for energy makes the Sea more critical than ever, not only because of the Sea’s own plentiful petroleum resources, but also because of the strategic water passageways that it provides for China’s “String of Pearls” oil corridors from Middle East suppliers.

The strategic value of the region is also great for China, as Chinese command of the South China Sea would not only secure great resources and advantages for Beijing, but also permit Beijing to choke off supplies headed to unfriendly nations. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of this is cause for great alarm among Asian neighbors.

As always, the factor of national pride cannot be overlooked when it comes to the PRC, as Beijing has historically viewed territorial claims as part of its national prestige and honor. As is with the case with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing is almost intractable when it comes to issues of national sovereignty. China cannot well withdraw from its claims in the South China Sea without incurring humiliation at home and abroad, a factor that must be taken into account by any negotiation partner in bilateral talks about the Asian region.

b. The United States of America

The US has less visible reason to engage in direct military conflict over the South China Sea than it would, say, over a direct Chinese invasion of Taiwan. But the dividends at stake are no less substantial or tangible.

The United States’ interests in the South China Sea are almost entirely those of China’s reversed. PRC control of the Sea region would enable it to shut off much trade and oil heading to U.S. allies in East Asia such as South Korea and Japan, with suffocating consequences. In addition, U.S. warships and carrier battle groups frequently transit through the Sea and the nearby Strait of Malacca, meaning that their mobility would be greatly hindered if the PRC were able to close off these sea lanes of communication.

Secondly, of course, the United States seeks to limit and contain the PRC in its rise to power, and the South China Sea represents merely another arena in which this power game is being played out. But U.S. public opinion might be unable to perceive a tangible U.S. interest in the South China Sea, and be unwilling to support armed intervention in such a “faraway” region.

Finally there is the idealism of the United States itself when it comes to “preserving freedom abroad.” The United States has made itself a name for being a meddling interventionist in global affairs, and nowhere is this reputation more cemented than in the area of international maritime law. The United States is not a signatory of UNCLOS, but has faithfully abided by all of its provisions and has ironically become its greatest enforcer and champion. In recent decades there have been countless incidents and engagements by U.S. forces in the name of “preserving freedom of navigation of the sea for all nations.” If there is anything that will spur Washington to intervene in the region, it may be the indignation over China’s “unreasonable” claims to the Sea and the threat that it poses to world sea traffic.

V. Conflict

One reason that America is being drawn into the South China Sea dispute is the fact that all of the other “claimants” – Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines – are in such an inferior naval position relative vis-à-vis to the PRC that there is no bona fide counterweight in the region save for the United States. China’s naval supremacy is overwhelming and absolute, and there is no real power among the ASEAN states that can put up competitive resistance should Beijing decide to enforce its will unilaterally by might with no regards for others.

To illustrate, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) possesses nearly twice as many surface combatant warships as all of the rest of the claimants combined and more than twenty times as many submarines. Such numbers do not belie the individual qualitative superiority of the PLAN warships, another factor in their favor. The PRC also has 11 naval bases already constructed in the area, giving it an embedded advantage in the region. In addition, the recent commissioning of the Varyag aircraft carrier, with more carriers likely on the way, gives the PLAN the potential to sustain a deployable airpower presence in the South China Sea that, even with its modest air wing, could outmatch nearly all local airpower in the region.

In short, a major conflict in the South China Sea would be bloody, but the PRC would doubtlessly come out on top. ASEAN nations have been bulking up their navies in recent times but this is expected to make little difference in the overall security equation, all the more so given the PLAN’s own rapid increase of strength from Beijing’s swelling defense budgets.

Unsurprisingly, the United States is willing to step in and has greatly increased its presence in the Sea since the beginning of the century, with many naval exercises held together with nations such as the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia. Such policy may indicate that the U.S. is seeking to develop a military alliance in the region to counteract against China and keep Beijing in check. Notably, the Russian Navy, formerly one of the great strategic players in the Pacific, appears to have withdrawn almost completely from the South China Sea region and plays little to no role in the game today.

a. The “Freedom of Navigation” (FON) program




At this point, there is another issue that must be taken into account. Since the Carter administration of the 1970s, the U.S. government has operated a confrontational program dubbed “Freedom of Navigation (FON.)” Under FON, American warships deliberately flout territorial claims of other nations that are considered to be illegal or unreasonable by passing through the challenged waters in a symbolic gesture of defiance, sometimes with violent consequences. FON was originally intended to challenge illegitimate Soviet maritime claims during the Cold War and is intended to persuade a coastal state to reverse policies or territorial claims that are considered detrimental to free navigation for all.

Should Washington consider Chinese claims to the South China Sea to be invalid, U.S. Navy warships under the auspices of the FON program will undoubtedly pass through these disputed waters and be challenged by warships of the PLAN, leading to more clashes, tension and incidents between U.S. and Chinese forces similar to the famous “Ramming Incident” between Soviet warships and the USS Yorktown in the Black Sea in February 1988, or the clashes with Libyan forces in the late 1980s over Kaddafi’s “Line of Death” in the Mediterranean Gulf of Sidra.

The danger of conflict between China and the United States in the South China Sea, then, may lie not in a deliberate war initiated by either side, but rather, by the escalation caused by a miscalculation, accident or incident between the two sides metastasizing into something greater. The danger of FON, especially after the April 2001 EP-3 spy plane incident, is that it increases the possibility of such accidental encounters between American and Chinese naval forces that could be the spark of flame put to the powder keg of tension and erupt in a full-blown conflict.

Nor is FON likely to be restrained or withheld as a kind gesture by any future China-friendly U.S. president. FON has been used with enthusiasm by every single presidential administration since Carter, ranging from all political types as Reagan to Clinton and has been deployed over than a thousand times against 35 different coastal nations. The PRC should fully anticipate provocative FON intrusions on part of the United States in regards to the future of the South China Sea and be ready ahead of time with a prepared response.

VI. The Future: Compromise?

Amidst this brinksmanship and saber-rattling tension, however, there are beginning to be signs that Beijing may be willing to pursue a different tack. China has been surprisingly willing to negotiate with ASEAN states in recent years, perhaps shrewdly outmaneuvering the United States in the process. For not only does this rob the American FON program of credibility – why would the U.S. uphold the right of freedom of navigation for ASEAN states who have made no complaint about the lack of freedom? – but it also builds bridges of friendship between China and ASEAN nations. The South China Sea rivalry between the two superpowers is as much about courting diplomatic allies away from each other as it is about petroleum or natural gas.

Perhaps Beijing has recognized that an aggressive stance will only drive the other ASEAN claimants into the arms of the Americans, given that the U.S. Navy is the only credible deterrent to the might of the Chinese PLAN. In addition, Beijing may be aware that the other five claimants are likely to gang up together on Beijing if they perceive a menacing PRC threat. The motives remain unclear, but the olive branches are being passed around.

To date, China has signed groundbreaking new agreements with Vietnam and the Philippines. In particular, Beijing signed a consensus agreement for joint exploration of the disputed Spratly Islands with Hanoi and Manila in March 2005. This agreement comes on the wake of China negotiating overflight rights with Vietnam and President Hu Jintao’s visit to Manila in 2000. It remains to be seen whether such diplomatic tactics are only local, or will spread to the entire region.

Such negotiation may also permit the PRC to begin exploiting the South China Sea’s rich resources at last. When the PRC claimed anything and everything for itself with a stance of utter inflexibility, extraction of resources was impossible, but with compromise, it can finally begin. If even buoys and bamboo floats were perceived as intolerable by the Philippines and regularly blown up in military skirmishes in the 1990s, it is scarcely probable that oil-drilling rigs of any flag – by far the most provocative of territorial establishments – could survive and be productive for long in an environment of bitter enmity. In the South China Sea, negotiation is not a “Win-Win;” it is the only possible Win.

There is however no doubt a desire to on all sides to test the boundaries and to push matters as far to the edge as possible. The current spat between the PRC and the joint venture with Vietnam and US Oil Giant Exxon provide an eloquent testimony to such attitudes.
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Suijen
post Jan 3 2011, 08:33 AM
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You'd have to change the rules of the game. Right now it's "Winner takes everything, loser gets d!ck". With the current rules in place, either China gets everything or it gets zilch, so all countries pretty much have to do the same or get zilch also. It'll have to be changed
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Shenzhou
post Jan 3 2011, 06:51 PM
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Whoever controls the Straits of Mallaca will control East Asia by the balls.
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foi2
post Jan 4 2011, 01:22 PM
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QUOTE (Shenzhou @ Jan 3 2011, 06:51 PM) *
Whoever controls the Straits of Mallaca will control East Asia by the balls.


That would be Malaysia and Singapore. But only until Thailand gets around to building a canal or a pipeline across its lands.

Not as big a deal as some believe.
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swingdoctor
post Jan 4 2011, 09:20 PM
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QUOTE (Suijen @ Jan 3 2011, 08:33 AM) *
You'd have to change the rules of the game. Right now it's "Winner takes everything, loser gets d!ck". With the current rules in place, either China gets everything or it gets zilch, so all countries pretty much have to do the same or get zilch also. It'll have to be changed

I agree
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KraterosHellas
post Jan 10 2011, 07:01 AM
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can't south korea and japan get their oil from russia?
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fireplant
post Jun 20 2011, 11:01 AM
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Just one question, did you write this yourself or are you sourcing it from somewhere? If the latter, please provide link to the source. If you are the author, I'll say this is so loaded with anti-chinese language I can't even finish read it.

"China’s naval supremacy is overwhelming and absolute, and there is no real power among the ASEAN states that can put up competitive resistance should Beijing decide to enforce its will unilaterally by might with no regards for others. "

Who goes to war with regard for your enemy? Where else will you see this "no regards for others" tagged on to a statement about military conflict? And is Beijing the only possible initiator of conflict? Try this version instead:


"China’s naval supremacy is overwhelming and absolute, and there is no real power among the ASEAN states that can put up competitive resistance should a military conflict arise. "


Also the details of the military analysis is way off. It's about long range air power, not bases.
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orange peel
post Jun 20 2011, 04:26 PM
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QUOTE (foi2 @ Jan 4 2011, 02:22 PM) *
That would be Malaysia and Singapore. But only until Thailand gets around to building a canal or a pipeline across its lands.

Not as big a deal as some believe.


lol that's like saying panama has the US by the balls... not the case man
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fireplant
post Jun 20 2011, 04:37 PM
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^bingo
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martin_nuke
post Jun 20 2011, 04:40 PM
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QUOTE (KraterosHellas @ Jan 10 2011, 07:01 AM) *
can't south korea and japan get their oil from russia?

Actually Japan, Thailand and Korea is getting some of its oil from the Galoc Philippines.

This post has been edited by martin_nuke: Jun 20 2011, 04:42 PM
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badparticle
post Jun 21 2011, 05:49 PM
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QUOTE (Shenzhou @ Jan 3 2011, 07:51 PM) *
Whoever controls the Straits of Mallaca will control East Asia by the balls.



Do Singaporeans control East Asia by the balls?
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Elite4
post Jun 21 2011, 06:10 PM
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The U.S. Navy holds East Asia by the balls, because the world's ocean is de-facto patrolled by America's eleven (11) carrier strike groups, which can cut off 80% of China's oil, and 90% of Japan's oil supply from Middle East via the Straits of Malacca.

To even remotely believe that China would even trust America's generousity in securing the world's oceans in an event over Taiwan is beyond idiocy, China wants control of strategic trade routes (South China Sea) and strategic choke points (Malacca) because she has been reading Alfred Mahan's thesis on seapower.

China is considering investing billions into the Thai (Kra) Canal, which would be an alternative to Malaysia/Indonesia/Singapore domination of Straits of Malacca.

This post has been edited by Elite4: Jun 21 2011, 06:13 PM
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Liang1a
post Aug 7 2011, 06:09 PM
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QUOTE
Elite4 wrote:
The U.S. Navy holds East Asia by the balls, because the world's ocean is de-facto patrolled by America's eleven (11) carrier strike groups, which can cut off 80% of China's oil, and 90% of Japan's oil supply from Middle East via the Straits of Malacca.


America's number of carriers will soon be reduced to just 10. China will also be increasing its number of carriers to at least 3 within the next 5 to 10 years.

China also has deployed its new anti-ship ballistic missiles, the DF-21D, which is considered accurate enough to destroy carriers from a radius of some 2,000 miles. Therefore, America's carriers cannot approach within 2,000 miles of China's borders. In the future these anti-ship ballistic missiles could be launched from submarines which will mean no carriers of any nation can be safe anywhere in the world. Unless more powerful defensive weapons are produced to protect these carriers or big battleships, they will become obsolete and be veritable floating coffins.
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