Deeper trade relations cannot stop war over South China Sea -expert

Camille Diola (The Philippine Star) - May 28, 2014 - 12:25pm

MANILA, Philippines — An armed conflict between China and the United States' regional partners including the Philippines, over the South China Sea is not unlikely despite the countries' deep economic ties, an Australian security expert said.

Alan Dupont, professor of International Security at University of New South Wales, said in a statement that China may choose to risk financially as it seeks to dominate the strategic waterway claimed by its neighbors and challenges the US' pre-eminence in the region.

"It should not be forgotten that Britain and Germany's extensive trade ties in the early 20th century did not prevent them going to war in 1914," Dupont said, referring to the first World War.

He also cited a recent Georgetown University study suggesting that East Asian countries such as China and Japan may choose to lose economically than lose maritime and territorial sovereignty.

"It would be wrong to conclude that deepening levels of trade interdependence are a guarantee or peace," Dupont said.

The Philippines, for one, considers China among its most important trading partners and the third largest after the US and Japan. China is also the country's 9th top foreign investor and fourth largest source of tourists.

Micah Zenko, a fellow at the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recent piece for Foreign Policy that war between the US and China is "not preordained" but tensions may lead to it.

"The United States could be drawn into a conflict over a territorial dispute involving China, especially since the United States has bilateral defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines," Zenko said.

Zenko said that involved states can avoid war only if they establish clear interpretations of actions within exclusive economic zones.

For Dupont, China has more to gain than lose once it establishes itself in the potentially oil-rich disputed waters.

"Resource insecurity is another important driver of China’s muscular unilateralism," the academic said.

"In a little more than two decades the country has moved from a net exporter to importing more than 55 per cent of its oil. Even China’s enormous ­reserves of coal are insufficient to meet domestic demand," Dupont added.

He also said that the West Philippine Sea and other fiercely contested areas are rich fishing grounds for China and critical to food security for its billion-strong population.

"This resource vulnerability weighs heavily on the minds of Chinese leaders who, in addition to worrying about terrorism, piracy and environmental disruptions to their energy supplies, are acutely aware that their main competitor, the US," he said.

The US, specifically its Navy's 7th fleet, has had control over the Malacca Strait and most of the western Pacific--areas China has been eyeing.

China's dispute with the US' long-held allies such as the Philippines is also giving the US an opportunity to "reinvigorate" its "alliance system" in the region.

Washington recently inked a landmark defense agreement with the Philippines to establish rotational presence of troops in the country after the US base was abolished in 1994.

Read: Sea row gives US chance to revive Asia-Pacific alliance

American President Barack Obama also concluded his state visits in the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea--countries seen as potential members of a reported new "security architecture" the US is trying to build.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, also seeks to also establish a "cooperation architecture" with regional parners such as Thailand, Turkey, Russia and Sri Lanka.

Xi's proposal was seen as Beijing's latest effort to build up groups of Asian or developing governments to offset the influence of the US and limit its role in the region.

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