On June 27th, 2018, the US Secretary of Defense Mr. James Mattis made international headlines accusing China of militarization, coercion and threatened an impending conflict. It is now clear that the US, after having sorted out a major issue with North Korea, seeks to step up pressure on China, even if it means an all-out war. Following the departure of James Mattis from China, two American warships ventured from the Taiwan Straits into South China Sea, which is the first time ever that Chinese waters have been penetrated by American Gunships. The big question now is whether the United States has geared itself for another Cold War that will destabilize Asia and ensure Western dominance yet again or is it the oil reserves in South China Sea that are the new objective, safe to say South China Sea is a jewel in the foreign policy of both China and the United States.
The background of the South China Sea conflict goes back to the discovery of almost 17 billion tons of crude oil reserves in the area. Following the issuance of technical reports, in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) declared the reserves and the pathway as part of China. A conflict formally surfaced in the 1970s when Philippines declared the Spartly Islands integral part of their physical boundary. The then president Ferdinand Marcos appealed to the International Community to initiate arbitrations for ownership of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Naturally, China resisted and denied the stance in accepting South China Sea as a disputed territory. Later on, India, Brunei and the United States also joined the fray in creating an anti-Chinese stance that South China Sea dispute is to be resolved through negotiations and any attempt to deny the same would be breach of International Law and a hindrance to World Trade. Around 2011, ASEAN became one of the key organizations whose drafts of negotiation were accepted by the PRC in terms of settlement of Island ownerships. The arbitration continued till the latest comment by President Xi Jinping that “China will not lose even an inch of territory left behind by ancestors” in 2018, which changed the face of the conflict all-together. The US Secretary of Defense was taken aback by this approach and now the ramifications of the event include a tirade of propaganda and campaigning against the Chinese government. The United Nation’s intervention through a Tribunal Ruling has already been rejected and termed “null and void” by President Xi.
In the aftermath of India and the US allegations of Chinese violations and South China Sea being a dispute, the Chinese government began a formal militarization and development of the area. Satellite images monitored by the Global Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative show a number of military developments, including a Shaanxi Y-8 military transport aircraft and two Xian Y-7 aircraft, as well as reports of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles. Some of the missiles are believed to have a range of over 200km. The images showed the air fields; armored hangars, naval docks, barracks, radar networks and defensive structures on the artificial islands are complete — in the final stages of construction. The organization also pointed the existence of underground tunnels and ammunition storage, missile and anti-aircraft gun positions, military radars and high-frequency surveillance antennas. China has made it clear that it is not willing to negotiate over this critical part of its territory. The United Nations reported that China is building a military fortress in the South China Sea which the world has not seen ever before.
On the other hand, the United States has taken a firm stance on the pretext of treaty allies such as Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. From the time of the Obama Administration, the Americans warned China of an eminent conflict in the name of “Freedom of Navigation”. Finally, around 2012, the Americans began deployment of naval assets from the Atlantic to the Pacific as a counter to Chinese military presence. The US stance clearly states that if China chooses to reject arbitration from ASEAN Nations and the United Nations, the only method to tackle such opposition is a military presence. With massive aircraft carriers and sophisticated warships armed with missiles and latest communication technology, it appears Washington and Beijing can no longer avoid a head- on course.
The disagreement is exacerbated by the fact the United Nations Convention on of Law of the Sea was not ratified by the US but still it stresses its importance and implementation by China. Now, the rhetorical question about South China Sea is protection of trading partners and freedom of navigation in international waters, whereas China is adopting the classic argument of State Sovereignty and Territorial Independence. In the July visit, James Mattis stressed the militarization of the South China Sea while Chinese officials objected arms sales to Taiwan. Both sides not ready to budge an inch or offering any light versions. In official statements, Beijing appeared to expressly assert, for the first time, that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea as “historic rights.” However, if Beijing is claiming historic rights to resources within the entirety of the nine-dash line (rather than historic fishing rights within territorial seas), its assertion flies in the face of previous diplomatic dialogues. The bilateral relations between the US and China are further strained by the implementation of control import tariffs on Chinese exports. China has readily responded by raises taxes on American exports in an eye-for-an-eye response.
International experts and economists are of the view China is now a direct competitor of the United States. The point of peaceful co-existence and mutually beneficial engagement has passed. The conflict in South China Sea matches this observation. The raising of tariffs, the direction of war ships towards each other and aiding smaller allies against one another is a visible sign of conflict, and not a healthy competition. China is in the expansion phase while the United States is an established military and economic power. The United States is fostering allies in the Pacific, entering into military ties with Taiwan, South Korea and Philippines while China is providing an alternate economic exchange system to countries like Iran and Pakistan through OBOR and CPEC. It is only a matter of time when the Trade War will be fought on the military plane as well. Donald Trump has referred to China as a “currency manipulator” whereas China has boosted its meritorious selection of leaders as a system which would never let “a man like Donald Trump” become Premier. At this point, it appears that the Sino-US relations are heading towards a classic clash unattended by International Government Organizations. No doubt, it is the size of the force and the economy behind it which determines whether United Nations or the Security Council can ever have lasting say in a matter of National Security of a Super Power. As a philosopher once said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”, once again, there is a bi-polar world, a situation of mutual mistrust and military show off and a geopolitical dispute tipping the balance between a state of peace or of war.
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The writer is Chairman of Jinnah Rafi Foundation