Islands in Dispute: Conflict over bits of rock and sand in South China Sea

While South African readers have been transfixed by the developments in Gupta Inc, many others have been horrified by the goings-on in the American presidential race or the continuing terror attacks in Europe and South Asia. But, thousands of kilometres from these, unsettling developments have been occurring on small but strategic islets in the South China Sea – including the installation of Chinese ground-to-air missiles on at least one of them. J. BROOKS SPECTOR offers some historical context for this development.

Many years ago the author read about the discovery of fragments of Chinese trade in the rubbish middens of entrepôt settlements along the East African coast – and well into the interior of the continent, in places like the long-vanished trading kingdom of Monomopata. Eventually, however, for the Chinese, such officially sanctioned and sponsored trade essentially vanished at the end of the Ming dynasty and then by its replacement by the Manchus. The latter were a ruling class largely uninterested in expanding trade and influence much beyond the East Asian heartland.

More recently, of course, the new Chinese commercial “invasion” of Africa in search of raw materials such as iron ore, petroleum, copper and agricultural products and markets for its vast output of consumer goods factories (and some political influence) has provoked much comment. Decried by some, this explosive new growth in Chinese influence in Africa has been widely discussed, and decried – as well as embraced by some. (as in the writer’s review of Howard French’s recent book, China’s Second Continent, among many others.)

Analysts and government officials in South Africa frequently call attention to the fact that China is now South Africa’s biggest single national trading partner. In such discussions, it sometimes goes overlooked that the EU, in toto, is a significantly larger trading partner, and the US-South Africa relationship still produces a net surplus position in South Africa’s favour.

Similarly, those familiar with China’s Southeast Asian neighbours are well acquainted with the deep penetration of Chinese business, trade and a diaspora of Chinese people in business throughout the region – some of which reaches back hundreds of years – and ranges from small traders in hill towns to (more recently) major international conglomerates. Historically, most of this has occurred with very little if any direct impetus from Chinese officialdom.

Important, for most of the past several decades, following conflict with India to stake out a boundary more favourable to China in border areas back in 1962, as well as with a military conflict with Vietnam at the end of the 1970s, the Chinese approach to its regional international relations has been largely nonviolent. Instead, its influence has usually been exerted through its economic heft, adroit diplomacy, and the enticements of soft power such as a growing network of Confucius Institutes and diplomatic forums.

In recent years, the Chinese economy has become the globe’s second-largest economy – once its leaders began following Deng Xiaoping’s famous injunction, “To be rich is wonderful”, and the progressive unburdening of large sectors of the economy from direct state management. Similarly, the Chinese military has undergone something of a revolution in methods and objectives. Moving away from a focus on sheer numbers, the Chinese military has moved sharply up the technological curve, developed significant cyber-warfare capabilities (including reports of its use of active measures), and designed and produced near-state-of-the-art fighter aircraft. Most recently, it has begun to shape a naval profile centred on aircraft carriers as well. In succeeding years, these forces will be increasingly capable of reaching deeply into the Western Pacific, as well as into the seas around the Asian littoral.

In sync with all of these developments, the Chinese have reinvigorated their old, generally dormant claim over a whole slew of tiny reefs and throughout the South China Sea, largely in two island groups – the Spratlys and the Paracels. This overall territorial claim – in what international law sees as international waters – has been delineated by what the Chinese refer to as “the Nine-Dash Line”. This boundary now figures on maps of China in new Chinese passports and other documents as part of an effort to restate national territory. However, their assertion of sovereignty is not universally accepted. Five other states – the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan (exercising the same historical reasoning Beijing does) – have claims over various parts of these islands and surrounding waters. None of the claimants has sufficient heft to make their claims really stick, save for China.

Meanwhile, the US has (along with many other nations) insisted the adjacent waters are international seas and not any nation’s territory. Thus they cannot be the subject of exclusive opportunities for control or exploitation by China (or anybody else). All of this is much more than the interesting raw material for a PhD in international law. The region seems to have largely untapped reserves of petroleum and natural gas and the seas are rich with commercially exploitable fisheries. Most important, perhaps, the immediate area sees a major share of global trade pass through these waters.

Accordingly, there are significant interests (by the US and a variety of other nations) in keeping these waters (and the islands) from turning into an active military conflict zone, even as there simultaneously are pressures to bring to an end any question about sovereignty over the area (primarily China). Under international law, sovereignty over the islands would also change the way underwater resources can be exploited and whether ships can engage in passage without restriction. Taken together, these factors seem to be driving the potential for conflict over these bits of rock and sand – dots that barely figure on any reasonable-sized map of the world.

In the past year or so, Americans have expressed growing concern about a Chinese effort to turn some of those forlorn little islands, especially Woody Island/Yongxing, into a mini military base that could function as a stationary aircraft carrier moored in the South China Sea. Before any artificial landfill was carried out, the island had a little over 200ha in area. Now it is growing significantly from all the construction work on it. The Chinese have built an airstrip there that rivals the airports of many small cities and, given its length, it is suitable for basing long-range military craft. At a recent US meeting with ASEAN leaders in California a couple of months ago, US officials noted that the Chinese have added some of their most state-of-the-art ground to air missiles on the site. Not surprisingly, the ASEAN leaders were less than enthusiastic about this development.

At the time, CNN said, “China has deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the South China Sea, according to Taiwan and US officials, in a move that has alarmed the country’s Asian neighbours. Chinese state media said defences had been in place on Woody Island, part of the Paracel chain in the hotly disputed sea, for years, and denied it was militarising the island. Satellite images taken on February 14 appeared to show several missile batteries and support vehicles, according to ImageSat International, which took the images. Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said Wednesday it had confirmed that surface-to-air missiles had been deployed. US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNN that commercial satellite imagery showed the deployment of missile batteries.”

Stung by this poke, China’s Defence Ministry replied that these facilities had been there for years, although the Chinese statements avoided mentioning the newly installed missiles. The Chinese Government-aligned Global Times argued those islands were Chinese territory and thus the country was entirely within its rights to place defensive weaponry there to protect its sovereignty and integrity and put the blame on the Western media for trying to “hype up the so-called China threat”. Or as Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei told the international media, “Deployment of defence facilities in our own territory is appropriate and reasonable. It’s aimed at improving our national defence capabilities and has nothing to do with so-called militarisation.”

Not everyone agrees. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called Chinese labelled these actions unacceptable, saying, “It is a common concern of the international community that China tries to change the situation and increase tensions in the South China Sea by carrying out extensive and rapid land reclamation, building its base in the region and utilising it for military purposes.”

Back at the time of that ASEAN meeting, US President Barack Obama called for a “halt to reclamation, new construction and militarisation” of Asia’s oceans, an indirect reference to China’s rapid construction in the South China Sea. And an unnamed US official (government jargon for this is a really senior person but we won’t identify him right this minute) added that bringing up these missiles around the time of this summit should be read as a “further demonstration of China’s attempt to unilaterally change the status quo” in the South China Sea.

And Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged Obama to take “more practical actions” that would put a stop to unilateral efforts (by China) to rewrite the status quo. Dung added Chinese activities were a “real threat to peace, security, safety and freedom of navigation and aviation”. No love lost there either.

Of course, the point of these missiles is rather obvious. Up until now, American military patrol planes have routinely flown over or near these islands – both to continue to assert the status of the area as international waters and to monitor closely what the Chinese have been doing on Woody Island and thereabouts. With ground-to-air missiles in place, the Chinese become better placed to wave off such patrols emphatically.

Addressing the broader strategic issues, CNN explained, “Other countries, including Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, have developed airstrips capable of handling military aircraft, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, which tracks the activities of states in the Asia-Pacific region. But Ashley Townshend, a visiting fellow at the Center for Asia-Pacific Co-operation and Governance at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said China’s missile deployment on Woody Island was clearly a ‘provocation’. He said China briefly deployed fighter jets last year on the island, which it has occupied since the 1950s. ‘China’s presence is tacitly accepted. What’s new there is a steep increase in these missile deployments, which gives it more military significance,’ he said. ‘It should be looked at in the strategic perspective of China hardening its presence in the South China Sea.’”

And the UK’s Guardian added that such developments can be game changers. “China has deployed surface-to-air missile launchers on an island in the South China Sea, satellite images appear to show, dramatically upping the stakes in a territorial dispute involving the US and its regional allies. Tensions in the South China Sea, a vital shipping route, could rise after two batteries of eight missile launchers and a radar system were deployed to Woody Island in the past week, according to images taken by the private company ImageSat International. The images were first published by Fox News. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, did not deny that missile launchers had been installed but said the reports were an attempt by certain western media to create news stories.”

Now, step-by-step, these waters and the islands in them are being redefined into Chinese territory in accord with that Nine Dashed Line. Their new assertiveness in the South China Sea, together with the Chinese aircraft carriers that will eventually carry out routine patrols deeper into the Western Pacific, are, in return, encouraging the US and South Korea, Japan, and the rival claimants to those island chains, along with Indonesia, Singapore and even Australia are quietly – or not so quietly – to redefine their respective strategic relationships vis-à-vis China as well, including some limited port access for the US Navy.

Meanwhile, all this has been taking place in the context of the Obama administration’s highly public “tilt towards Asia” and the negotiation of the TransPacific Partnership trade pact with a clutch of nations along the Pacific that has not, so far, included China and seems to be in competition with China’s own transnational economic moves such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But, lately, the Chinese have had to contend with less than salutary domestic economic facts.

Its weakening economic prospects may come to generate limits on China’s inevitable rise that may, in turn, lead to a lessened ability (or interest) in competing globally with the US full-on, instead focusing internally on its economic circumstances. However, the alternative argument is that precisely because of these conditions, the leadership may have a heightened interest in geopolitical adventures that can serve to re-inflate a sense of the country’s prominence in international affairs. While there has, so far, been no fatal collision in the Spratlys and Paracels between China and the US, the conditions may exist for just such a possibility that while localised could also lead to something broader and more troubling.

Within the past week or so, the Chinese appear to have continued their assertions of interest – this time even beyond the islands inside that Nine Dashed Line. In describing this latest ruction, The Economist reported, “The latest fight China has picked is with a country with which – unlike Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – it has no territorial dispute: Indonesia. On March 21st the chargé d’affaires at China’s embassy in Jakarta was hauled in to receive a stiff protest. A Chinese coastguard vessel had rammed free a Chinese fishing boat as it was towed into port after being caught allegedly fishing in Indonesian waters. The crew of eight was already in detention. In a similar incident three years ago, Indonesia released detained crew members when confronted by an armed “maritime law-enforcement” vessel belonging to China’s fisheries bureau. China explicitly acknowledges Indonesian sovereignty over the Natunas [an island group just south of the Nine Dashed Line]. Yet instead of apologising, China’s foreign ministry demanded the fishermen’s release, claiming that they had been carrying out ‘normal operations’ in ‘traditional Chinese fishing grounds’…. (T)he government’s implicit argument is that a self-proclaimed ‘tradition’ trumps international law….”

This suggests, argues The Economist, that “China believes it has rights over not just land features inside the line, and their territorial seas and EEZs [Exclusive Economic Zones], but also over all the water itself – a concept alien to UNCLOS [the UN Convention on Law of the Sea]….” And “In the Spratlys to the south it is building what look like potential air and naval bases, complete with military-grade radars. Scarborough Shoal [to the east of Woody Island] would complete a ‘strategic triangle’ that would allow it to dominate the sea. China is widely expected one day to declare an ‘air defence identification zone’ over the sea, as it has over parts of the East China Sea, including areas contested with Japan.”

Map by The Economist.

The Economist concluded that while experts believe the US is unlikely, at least at this point, to risk a real crisis, let alone any actual conflict with China, these continuing step-by-step movements by the East Asian nation into those two island chains “erodes America’s credibility as the pre-eminent military power in the western Pacific, but does not directly threaten it. By contrast, rather than cow China, America’s enhanced military role gives it a pretext to carry on with its build-up. There is still the danger, however, of an accidental flare-up – a skirmish over illegal fishing, for example, and an ensuing escalation. Armed conflict in the South China Sea is a long way from being inevitable. But it is far from unthinkable.” [Italics added]

Looking forward, a complicating factor is that such possibilities pit a China with its expansive vision for the 21st century against an avowedly status quo power – the US – along with other less powerful nations. In the next several years, the two big nations will need to figure out just how their competing visions fit together – and what that will mean for all the other nations in the area, as well as the roughly 40% of total global shipping that passes through that area.

And there you thought you only had to worry about the unpredictability of global terror, a perpetually unsettled Middle East, the rise of Donald Trump and the economic and political effects of the Gupta’s deep reach into South Africa’s political universe. DM

Photo:Filipino Marine soldiers stand guard next to Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAV) during a mock ‘beach assault’ scenario as part of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) US-Philippines joint military exercise in the Zambales province facing the disputed South China sea, Philippines, 30 June 2014. CARAT Philippines is a bilateral exercise series between the Philippines’ Navy and the U.S. Navy to strengthen maritime partnership, amid increasing regional tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. EPA/FRANCIS R. MALASIG


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