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Monday, June 17, 2024

Troubled waters over South China Sea


There is a red line drawn in the South China Sea: cross it and war breaks out. The Philippines delivered this stern warning to China as tension keeps rising over competing territorial claims in this vast waterway 

The “red line” is Manila’s way of saying that if its citizens are killed by a “wilful act” of China in any encounter on the high seas, then it would constitute an “act of war”.

Of course, the Philippines will not go to war with mighty China in a one-to-one encounter. Big Brother America will do all the fighting because of the defence pact that binds the two countries.

Backed by the US, the Philippines has adopted a more belligerent stance and is pushing China to the extreme.

What of Asean?

Tension has risen a notch higher when China recently introduced a new law which authorises its coastguards to detain foreigners who enter Chinese waters illegally for up to 60 days without trial.

Manila’s response was prompt and defiant: ignore the trespass law. Filipino fisherfolk will continue to go fishing in what they consider is their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.

But the Philippines is a member of Asean, a regional grouping set up to forge economic and security cooperation. Although it is not a military alliance, the fact that it is also collaborating on security matters means it must show great concern about the deteriorating maritime row.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia are also claimants and they should be rightfully worried if the situation gets out of control. Would Asean remain a mute bystander if China attacked the Philippines?

Would not an attack on the Philippines constitute an attack on all Asean members?

Would Asean response decisively with a show of military force by deploying ships and troops to the contested areas?

But Asean is no match to the military might of China either individually or jointly. China is a nuclear superpower and its mere sabre-rattling is enough to send puny countries scattering in fear.

When it comes to trade, China is all friendly and accommodating. Its smile is as wide as the South China Sea because it has all to gain and nothing to lose when doing business.

But when you touch the South China Sea, Beijing instantly morphs into a fire-spewing dragon. There is no way it is going to give up an inch of the waterway which it claims was handed down to them since ancient times.

It was in the 13th century that China drew a rough maritime map that showed the whole of the South China Sea under its control. Modern China came up with the so-called nine-dash line to reinforce its claim.

The U-shaped line encompasses practically the entire 3.5 million square kilometres of the waterway. But the problem is it also eats into areas that several Asean countries are contesting as their own because they come within their EEZ.

And the Philippines has denounced the new map as a “gigantic historical fraud”.

A difficult conundrum

Why are all these countries salivating over this body of water? Take an aerial view of the region and what do you see? Only rocks, reefs, atolls and small parcels of islands.

But beneath these troubled waters lies the main attractions: largely untapped oil and natural gas besides the flourishing fishing grounds.

How then can all the claimants, especially the Asean members, make their case for a share of this resource-rich seabed? Drag China to court? Pointless. Beijing would simply ignore any international court ruling that is unfavourable.

Try aggressive diplomacy? But what is aggressive diplomacy? If it means pursuing China relentlessly with endless engagements without outside interference, it might not yield the desired results because as far as the Beijing leadership is concerned, the South China Sea is a closed topic.

Aggressive diplomacy also implies adopting a carrot-and-stick approach - expanding business opportunities with China accompanied by threats of cutting off trade - but it would only exacerbate the problem. Beijing would eat the carrot and break the stick.

A workable, acceptable, constructive formula to break the impasse is a long way off given the assertive behaviour of China. Assertive behaviour and aggressive diplomacy cannot coexist. It will always give rise to endless disputes.

In the meantime, tension will continue to boil on the high seas. Beijing will maintain sleepless watch over its priceless “property” to ensure no one can breach the Great Seawall of China. Cross the nine-dash line and war breaks out. - Mkini

PHLIP RODRIGUES is a retired journalist.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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