Written by Nikolay Nikolaev; Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront
The policy of containing China and “the pivot to Asia” which is supposed to provide the “Pacific century of the US” (in the words of Hillary Clinton) threatens peace on the planet.
What is happening in the South China Sea? This question is asked by anyone who observes the increased tensions between Beijing and Washington. It is gradually threatening to cross the border of the rhetoric war. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China warned the US military not to exacerbate tensions in the South China Sea by sending military vessels or aircraft in the vicinity of the Chinese islands. The Pentagon countered that US ships and aircraft can travel on all routes under international law at all times, and declared to their regional allies that they will soon conduct patrols near the Chinese positions. The situation is complicated and the Chinese defense minister warned of a possible naval warfare, urging the military, police and citizens to be ready to defend the country’s territorial integrity. What actually caused the conflict between the US and China, and how does it differ from the announced desire for free naval travel? To orient ourselves we need the help of history and geography.
The island archipelagos – the South China Crimea and the Persian Gulf simultaneously
The islands in the South China Sea consist of more than 250 atolls, islands, shoals and reefs divided into several groups, among which are the Paracel (known in China as the islands Sisha, southeast of Hainan) Dongsha (among them is the largest island in the south China Sea, located 340 kilometers south of Hong Kong) Dzhongsha (located southwest of the islands Sisha) Huanyan (200 kilometers west of the Philippines) and Spratly (Nansha, the southernmost islands located between China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines). With the exception of a few larger islands, most of them are below sea level at high tide, while others are completely submerged. The rich fishing resources and potentially huge deposits of oil and gas, estimated at 11 billion barrels of oil and 5.4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, are the main assets of the islands. But they also have another very important asset – their geographical location. You could say that location is the most important strategic asset. Through the maritime routes around the archipelagos, passes around two-thirds of the global trade of oil and half of the maritime trade in the world. The islands play the same role in the South China Sea as Crimea does on the Black Sea – they are an unsinkable aircraft carrier from which can be controlled the shipping routes and achieved military superiority in the region. The South China Islands are the link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the eastern part of the Eurasian continent. Securing control over the regulation of trade can also mean access to vital resources and ensure economic prosperity. For example, the powerful analytical agency “Stratfor” notes that “by controlling the seas, the United States is able to ensure safe movement of their goods and deploy military force in the world”. Dominance in the South China Sea allows the controlling party to plan their strength on the coastal areas of present-day China, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. That’s exactly how China had the demographic, cultural and economic expansion, through which for centuries the Han Chinese ruled politics and economics in the region.
The end of World War II left the mainland without an island in the South China Sea
The fact is that the islands and reefs in the South China Sea have been under Chinese jurisdiction centuries ago. In Chinese historiography, there are sources indicating that China is the country that discovered the islands in the South China Sea during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Economic usage, along with political control is associated with the management of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) and Ming (1368-1644 AD). A testament to an increased economic life around the South China islands is the famous Roadmap, which served as a navigational guide for Chinese fishermen during their trips to the islands Sisha and Nansha. The first roadmap was written during the Ming Dynasty and was improved steadily thereafter. The era of colonialism posed a test for the countries from America, Africa and Asia. After the Franco-Chinese War of 1885, Vietnam, which was a Chinese dependency, was transferred to French possession in Indochina. And with the Convention on the settlement of border issues between the two countries in 1887, France recognized Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly Islands ( Nansha) and Paracel Islands (Sisha). in 1933, however, France annexed the two archipelagos and included them in the administrative division of French Indochina. Five years later, Japan took them from France, and build garrisons and a submarine base in Taiping. After the defeat of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo pact, and Japan’s withdrawal from the region, Mainland China led by Mao Zedong, is stopped at the borders of the mainland and remained without the possession of the islands in the South China Sea, with the exception of Hainan.
The attempts by Chinese leaders to get back possession of the islands lead to the demarcation “9 dash line” that defines the boundary of the Chinese possessions, including the islands Sisha, Dzhongsha, Dongsha, Nansha and Huanyan. The unwillingness of the former colonial empires of NATO and the United States to recognize the influence of Communist China in the South China Sea, is an analogue of the policy of containment towards the Soviet Union. The aim is the isolation of the Chinese armed forces within the Chinese borders and territorial waters. Western allies see the face of the Chinese Communist Party as a faithful ally of Moscow, and a fundamental threat to themselves, so they hinder in any way they can, the expansion of China’s influence in its historical borders.
So in 1956 the fading French colonial empire proclaimed the transfer of Nansha and Sisha islands to South Vietnam. And although they have never been under the jurisdiction of the Philippines, in the late 60s and early 70s the Philippines are included in the division of loot and occupy a part of the islands of Nansha, and assert sovereign rights with the approval of the United States. China remains isolated on the continent, but directs its subsequent efforts to gradually pierce the enemy hoop around her.
The first opening came in early 1974 in the time after the Paris treaty, regulating the Vietnam War. US troops withdraw from South Vietnam, which controls the islands Sisha (Paracel Islands) and thus emerged a chance for China to get back the islands. Normalization of relations with the United States, which dominates the region of the South China Sea, and the focus of South Vietnam in the conflict with the northern Democratic Republic, allow Beijing to conduct a military operation in early 1974 to establish control over the whole archipelago Sisha. This led to a clash with the South-Vietnamese forces, which China wins. In 1999, after many negotiations, China and Vietnam sign an agreement by which they permanently demarcate the boundary between them, and in 2009 the disputes are finally resolved with the signing of a contract between the foreign ministers of China and Vietnam.
The change in relations with the US and the triangular diplomacy of Nixon, give a chance for China to turn its attention to the other major archipelago toward which all countries in the region have an appetite – the islands of Nansha (Spratly) – 14 islands controlled by the Philippines and Vietnam (with Taiping island controlled by Taiwan). Brunei and Malaysia also have possessions in the archipelago. China’s leadership had chosen a strategy of a non-military solution to the conflict over the islands through bilateral negotiations, and although it does not recognize the authority of Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, it allowed their administration by the three countries. In this impasse Beijing finds a solution in the management of reefs, shoals and atolls in the archipelago, and the construction of artificial islands on 7 of them – a task which China works on in the last decades of the XX century. The uneventful years after the end of the Cold War, reduced geopolitical opposition and shift the focus of China on economic development – a factor which subsequently turns things upside down. The economic rise of China and the regional leadership of Beijing, seriously worries the strategists across the Pacific, which begin to see the Chinese economic miracle as a primary threat to its global hegemony.
Washington’s strategy – deterrence of China and the internationalization of territorial disputes
When in 2009 Barack Obama took office, his administration took a global strategic initiative for “A Pivot to Asia”. According to the idea, the United States must implement the strategy the Stay Behind in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, relying on local partners. And to focus all their attention toward the new global economic and political center – East Asia. There the US will undoubtedly have a fight with China, but as Hillary Clinton stated in an article for Foreign policy “America’s Pacific Century” - their presence will ensure favorable conditions for the US economy, ie the global American hegemony.
State Department officials stress however, that China is rapidly expanding its influence in the region and the United States are no longer the main player. Analyst Peter Lee indicated that tensions between the two countries will be inevitable due to the efforts of proactive deterrence of China. The failure to have a serious economic impact, forced Washington to rely on the military factor in which it holds dominant positions. According to the US plans, announced by Secretary of Defense Panetta in 2012, the United States intends to transfer 60% of its fleet to Singapore, including six aircraft carriers in the Asia-Pacific region. The expansion of military pressure includes the deployment of 2,500 Marines at the Air Force Base in Darwin, Australia, and the stationing of troops in the Philippines. The US is also planning the arming of China’s regional rivals. Washington strategy aims to control the South China Sea, which will allow America to blackmail China with a possible naval blockade of the trade routes that are of colossal importance for China. From 2012 onward, the US Navy carried out the so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), with which it justifies its military presence and patrols in the South China Sea.
The line of “three island chains” – China’s defense strategy
China realizes the great danger ahead. The control over the transit of energy and of shipping lanes, imposes an imperative to China to have a military presence in the South China Sea. And if possible to keep the US military at a distance. As is well known, the cruise missiles “Tomahawk” and other types of precision weapons, combined with aircraft carriers, allows the implementation of attacks deep inside mainland China. From this perspective, moving the defense line into the ocean increases Chinese security. According to senior Chinese military officials, including former naval commander Admiral Liu Huatsin, in the near future most military operations will be limited to the so-called first island chain, starting from Japan and passing east of Taiwan. In the south, China follows the “9 dash line”. Without ensuring security in the South China Sea, the realization of the ambitious Chinese project seems impossible to have the potential to alter the geopolitical architecture of Eurasia and the world with its Economic zone: the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road. This road passes precisely through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait.
In pursuit of this goal, China recently started the construction of several artificial islands in the sea, where they have logistical units and bases for support of air and naval forces. Chinese leaders realized that “The Pivot to Asia,” of the US is associated with large-scale military pressure, and decided they have no time to lose. The involvement of Washington with conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, allowed China to take the initiative. In 2012, the country took control over the disputed with the Philippines island Huanyan, and according to diplomatic sources, China will use the power vacuum before the US presidential elections to start building facilities for logistical support to extend the scope of its air force and to monitor the US base in Guam.
Similarly, three airports and a deepwater port of artificial islands were recently built in Nansha, ensuring the operation of the fleet and aviation, and in August, China sent into the sky of the South China Sea patrol bombers and fighters that could allow Beijing an identify its zone of defense. China has a powerful naval base on Hainan Island and it installed the anti-aircraft missiles HQ-9 and a radar system on the main island of the group Sisha. At present, the Chinese military is working on the introduction of a fifth unit of the new nuclear submarine class “Qin” armed with 12 ballistic missiles with a range of 7400 kilometers – enough to effectively counter the US.
China also sent into orbit a new satellite, Gaofen-3, with the ability to capture images from space with a resolution of one meter. Official Chinese officials say this will allow China to protect “its marine rights and interests.” Decisive favorability in the dispute in favor of China is provided by Russia. Moscow is systematically arming the Chinese side with fourth-generation fighters, missiles “ground-to-air” and submarines, probably because the Russians are facing a similar pressure from the United States in the western part of Eurasia. This week, in the Northwest South China Sea, off the coast of the Guangdong province, a Russian-Chinese naval exercises was launched – a clear sign at how Moscow would look at an attempt by Washington to use force to resolve the conflict.
To expel the United States from resolving disputes in the South China Sea, China relies on bilateral negotiations and agreements – an approach which countries in the region are increasingly adhering to. In recent years, Beijing has made arrangements with Vietnam and the new governments of Thailand and the Philippines, along with Malaysia and Singapore, where Chinese influence in the economy has traditionally been high. These countries for now prefer to speak a common language with China. This circumstance is a huge embarrassment for Washington. Unlike the containment of Russia, in which the United States used a complex of economic, diplomatic and even informational-psychological methods, for China, Washington believes that a military deterrence is rational. This fact, combined with the absence of US partners in the region willing to unite in an anti-China military alliance, makes the “red lines” of the US and China too close to each other. The situation has a huge potential for a conflict. The restrained Confucian Chinese diplomacy reacted unusually sharply to US pressure. The episode with the lack of a red carpet ladder for Obama’s airplane during his visit to Hangzhou for the G-20, and the hostility toward Susan Rice, who is leading the policy of the State Department toward China, reaches dangerous levels of tension. China sees the restricting of its possessions in the South China Sea by the US, as a red line that can not be crossed. Because it is essential for the survival, security and the very existence of the country.