SPEAKING FREELY South China Sea: A new geopolitical node
By Prokhor Tebin
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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
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
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
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