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Asian Waters II

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on March 21st, 2009

Tension in the South China Sea area has been rising for decades as disputes increase among littoral states about who exactly owns the hundreds of reefs, shoals, and islets that dot the 142,000 square mile expanse of water.

The tensions are now flaring again. The Philippines have finally determined a base line or low tide mark, as required by the Law of the Sea, from which their various zones of sovereignty, economic exclusivity, etc, have been calculated. On the basis of these zones some but not all of the Spratly islands would come legally under Manila’s control.

This seems to have set alarm bells ringing in China, which considers the entire sea to be its own internal waters. Fifteen years ago in Beijing I spent an hour chatting with Huang Hua 黃華  (b. 1913) and foreign minister from 1976 to 1982. Huang is an educated and  cosmopolitan man. His appraisal I think must be taken seriously. “We will” he told me “pick up all those little islands one by one.” Of course China has been doing that, taking the Paracels from Vietnam in a hard fought battle in 1974, and Mischief Reef from the Philippines by stealth in 1999. Both are now firmly held Chinese bases.

Not all the islands by any means are in Chinese hands: Itu Aba, Taiping Dao, or Spratly Island, the largest and most important in the group,  is held by Taiwan, which has built an airfield there, and administers it (regular postal service included) as part of the Kaohsiung prefecture, some thousand miles away. The two relatively modern submarines in Taiwan’s fleet, bought from the Netherlands in the 1980s are regularly found in their waters.

The establishment of a baseline means that under the Law of the Sea Manila can now claim some islands quite legally with ultimate decision to rest not on military confrontation but on international law, something Beijing fears.

Hence a recent spate of attempts to scare foreign ships out of international waters that China claims. A US Navy reconnaissance ship was interfered with in the vicinity of the huge new submarine base in China’s Hainan Island to the extent the unarmed US ship was using high pressure hoses to keep the Chinese back, until the Navy sent an armed escort. Now an unarmed Chinese patrol craft has been sailing deep into Philippine waters to proclaim sovereignty 宣示 主權 which has led to a new crisis having some nuances worth noting.

The most widely read Chinese paper in the US, the China-leaning World Journal 世界日報  (part of the Taiwan based United Daily News group) suggests (18 March) that war may be at hand. The Philippines, it reports in a bold headline, will not fear opening fire on the Chinese if necessary. The intent seems to be to sell newspapers and to force Taiwan, which in theory claims much of the territory too, to get involved, pressed by public opinion, in the argument.

In Beijing calculations appear different. The most down market and widely read Beijing newspaper is the Global Times  環球時報 (whose profits support the money losing People’s Daily, which owns it). The Times can be relied upon for distorted and sensationalist coverage that indicates what the government wants people to be saying. It runs a headline stating that the US has affirmed it will not get involved--such are the baleful results for Manila of abrogating their defense relationship with the United States--but words that reassure the Chinese population that deeply fears and opposes war. (A second story states, incongruously, that the US and China are contesting the sovereignty of the South China Sea).

One would think that the Philippines were needlessly seeking a pretext for war. But although they are frightened and their Navy chief is responding, quite professionally, with pledges to maintain his country’s territory, most of the Manila press is filled with appeals for the exhausting of every diplomatic and legal avenue and against the use of force. These go unreported in the Chinese media I have consulted so far.

China want the South China Sea above all because it is an important stage on the energy transport route from the Middle East through the Straits of Malacca (over which China has no control) and the industrial states beyond--China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.

What China ignores, however, is that naval power and territory will never secure the area. The islets and reefs are all too small to support a defensible garrison, so to build forts and accumulate weapons and troops is simply to divide forces and render them subject to defeat in detail. One suspects that even the Philippines, no super power, could push the Chinese out of Mischief Reef if they had the political will. Nor will fleets patrolling do much, unless they are willing to shoot at other fleets, which is rarely a good idea.

Though it is water, the South China Sea is in fact to be contested in the air. Much or all of the area is well within the combat radii of ground based aircraft of the neighboring states.  Control will come only when absolute domination of the skies above has been secured from the land. Singapore already has a formidable and advanced air force, though a Singaporean-Chinese confrontation seems unlikely--unless the Chines try to grab some territory belonging to the city state. Malaysia has Su 30s and Mig 29s; Indonesia has some Russian and American advanced fighters thought not to be combat ready. Vietnam has Su-27s and Su-30s. Taiwan has F-16s, Mirage 2000s, and the Ching-kuo which has a combat radius of about 1,000 miles. As for the Philippines, their air force focuses on counter insurgency. They have some near-obsolete F-5s, but upgrade programs have been stymied. Even so, this littoral air power surrounding the South China sea means that China will face a military and logistical nightmare if she seeks to enforce her claims by force. More likely she will seek to overawe the nations of the region with her might. (The now deceased head of China’s NSA equivalent in a conversation with me once referred to Indonesia and Malaysia as “those little countries”  那些小國 家 and this is truly how they think.

Why are the Chinese walking into this mess? Some say domestic reasons. The gutter press regularly features the sorts of military stories that will make the blood of any young man run hot. I am not so sure. It is possible that the military is doing this as a quid pro quo for supporting the government. If so, that augurs ill. Or perhaps the government supports the military, which is even worse.

So what lies ahead? If China decides to increase her patrols in the South China Sea and to assert her sovereignty actively, we may expect trouble. Her adversaries are divided, but no doubt could divide the cake among themselves satisfactorily. The trouble, however, will probably not be military. First, we can expect legal cases at the UN and International Court of Justice that will be headaches for China as her legal position is weak. Second, we can expect an arms race, not so much naval though that will be part of it, but in the area of anti ship missiles and advanced attack aircraft.

Finally, one must not ignore the great powers to the north and west: Japan, Russia, and India. Although they have no claims in the South China Sea, they have interests there, one of which is that the waters remain international. As for the US, reports that we are stressing dialogue sit uneasily with our rather robust defense of our unarmed reconnaissance vessel.

This story is just beginning.

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