Friday, 10 May 2013 13:04
By Perry Diaz
to choppy sea disputes
With China moving closer to total control of the South China Sea, the other five claimant countries are getting nervous… very nervous. Indeed, China’s neighbors are so nervous that they’re arming themselves in an attempt to stop China’s aggressive advances into their territories. But at the rate China is building her naval forces and deploying them to the South China Sea and East China Sea, there is only one country that could stop her – the United States.
But the U.S. is hesitant to get involved militarily in China’s territorial disputes with her neighbors. However, the U.S. made it crystal clear that in the case of Japan, she would defend Japan in the event China attacked her over the disputed Senkaku islands.
The Senkaku islands (Diaoyu to China), a group of five uninhabited islands and islets wedged between Okinawa and Taiwan, is a tinderbox ready to explode. The standoff between Chinese maritime vessels and the Japanese Coast Guard could escalate into armed conflict at the slightest provocation from either side. Japan had warned China that she would use force to stop Chinese occupation of the islands.
If war erupted between China and Japan, the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend Japan. And here’s the kicker: the U.S. has three other mutual defense treaties — with Taiwan, Philippines, and Australia – that could turn the conflict into a war of global magnitude! Which makes one wonder if Russia would be tempted to join the fray — on China’s side — to settle Russian-Japanese territorial dispute over the four South Kurile Islands.
During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia last April, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that one way of settling their dispute over the South Kurile Islands is to split them evenly. Putin’s solution makes sense. First, Russia and Japan get two islands each; secondly, it ends their dispute; and thirdly, war is avoided.
In the game of Poker, that’s called “chop-chop.” When there are only two players left before the “flop,” one player could propose a “chop-chop” — that is, to split the pot evenly between them.
This “chop-chop” solution could be repeated in several flashpoints in the East China Sea and South China Sea where China is embroiled in several territorial disputes with her neighbors.
The Senkaku territorial dispute among Japan, China, and Taiwan could be settled easily since the uninhabited islands and islets don’t have value big enough to trigger a war between China and Japan. Actually, Japan and Taiwan had recently agreed – after 17 years of negotiation – to share fishing rights in the waters around the Senkaku Islands without settling the sovereignty issue.
The big – and complicated — territorial disputes are those that China has with five countries that have overlapping claims to parts or the entire Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are claiming parts of the Spratly archipelago that are within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) while Taiwan is claiming the entire archipelago. But China has arbitrarily drawn an imaginary line – referred to as the “nine-dash line” – that encompasses about 80% of the entire South China Sea. She claims this as part of China since ancient times.
China and Vietnam are also claiming the Paracel Islands that China took over by force from Vietnam in 1974. And then there is the Scarborough Shoal — which is within the Philippines’ EEZ – that China occupied in 2012. Recently, China imposed a 15-mile fishing restriction around the contested area.
Over the last few years, China had become more assertive – and aggressive – in pursuing her territorial claims. Recently, she deployed naval warships to the South China Sea and landed troops on James Shoal, some 1,100 miles south of China and 50 miles from the coast of Malaysia. It was symbolic act to establish control over the waters near Malaysia.
What China is doing is like a game of Chinese checkers, which is to move her pieces in single steps or jump over other pieces. The objective is to be the first to move all her pieces across the board to “home” on the opposite side of the board.
On May 6, 2013, a fleet of 30 fishing boats left China’s Hainan province for the Spratly Islands under a unified command and accompanied by a supply ship and transport vessel. The fishing boats have a capacity of more than 100 tons each. They plan to stay in the disputed waters for 40 days.
A Chinese official said that the operation aims to develop a “business model” that would let fishermen catch fish around the islands on a regular basis.
In essence, that would set a precedent for future fishing forays to the waters around the Spratlys. Not too long ago, a high-ranking Chinese general proposed sending 5,000 armed fishing boats into the South China Sea.
Last year China announced that effective January 1, 2013 Hainan police will board and search ships that would “illegally enter what China considers its territory in the disputed South China Sea.”
Thus far, China has not imposed this new policy yet, lest it would provoke the United States who had made it crystal clear that “freedom of navigation” must be maintained in the South China Sea, which is one the busiest – if not the busiest – trade routes in the world. Can you imagine what would happen if China successfully blocked cargo ships heading to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, or the Philippines coming from the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca?
Pivot to Asia
Recently, the U.S. Navy Chief, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, during a nine-day trip to Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, reassured the U.S.’s allies in Asia-Pacific that the U.S. plans to expand her naval presence in the Pacific with new ships and high-tech weaponry.
It is interesting to note that the U.S. Navy has 283 in her current fleet of which 101 are deployed and 52 are in Pacific waters, and would be increased to 62 ships by 2020. That doesn’t take into account that there are 47 ships under construction or under contract including three nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. The USS Gerald R. Ford, the first of the three, will be launched in November 2013.
But the most contentious of China’s territorial disputes is with the Philippines. Recently, the Philippines took their dispute to the United Nations for arbitration under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines claims that under UNCLOS, she has fishing rights to resources and to enforce her laws within her EEZ. However, China had made it clear that she would not agree to an arbitration.
With no clear solution to China’s territorial disputes with her neighbors, sooner or later one of these disputes would become an armed confrontation involving China and the U.S. The problem is that China has declared the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as “core interests,” which means that they’re not negotiable. So how can China convince the other claimants to negotiate the disputed waters and islands when China’s position is that they’re not negotiable?
With the U.S. providing a “nuclear umbrella” over her allies in Asia-Pacific, it would be very unlikely for China to push her aggression to the limit. Instead what she’s doing is taking small steps like in a game of Chinese checkers, chop-chopping her way to “home” without alarming the U.S. and her allies. And pretty soon, she would accomplish her ultimate goal… without firing a shot.
Indeed, there is a “chop-chop” solution to the choppy sea disputes. But it works two ways. It can be used to settle disputes amicably like what Putin had in mind in regard to the South Kurile Islands or Xi Jinping can use it to bully China’s neighbors into submission.
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