Choppy waters in the South China Sea

Monday, 30 April, 2012

The standoff earlier this month — “Philippines Warns China in Naval Crisis” — between a Filipino warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels was ostensibly about disputed fishing rights in an area of the South China Sea where both countries claim sovereignty. This is about something more controversial than shark fin soup, though. China wants to “own” the territory but the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are kicking back. And all of them have security agreements with the United States, which include joint military exercises and hosting US troops.

PLAN There’s a real dilemma here for Washington, though, as its allies may be tempted to use their US leverage to aggravate Beijing. Washington doesn’t want them to think that it’s a reluctant friend, but it also wants to avoid getting caught up in a never-ending series of disputes with China. So how can it reduce tension in the South China Sea? Here’s where luck may play a role. China’s economy is slowing and the prospect of social unrest caused by falling incomes and scandal means that Beijing will begin to focus inwards instead of outwards. As well, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is not in any shape to challenge the world’s only superpower. Apart from possessing one aircraft carrier of uncertain usefulness, PLAN is only fit for controlling the waters within 100 km of the China coast. Trying to push around the ill-equipped Philippine Navy does not impress the neighbours, who know full well that PLAN is incapable of mounting amphibious operations against Taiwan, let alone projecting force on Vietnam over the Spratley Islands and their huge oil reserves. The fact that Vietnam has just completed a weeklong exercise with the US Navy is significant. During the manouveres, three ships from the US 7th Fleet visited Danang, which was a major American air base during the Vietnam War.

The best case scenario for Washington is a regional agreement on the free navigation in the South China Sea. It won’t be easy to do, but this is an increasingly important region and America’s Asian allies are very aware of what’s at stake.

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