Conflict in South China Sea again?
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - July 16, 2020 - 12:00am

The pandemic is at the center of public attention because it is the most relevant among current threats to the Philippines. There are, however, other issues that will ultimately become a serious threat if our leaders do not handle them properly.

Understanding these issues requires thorough study of their background.  The most critical of these is the South China Sea dispute caused  by China’s claim of sovereignty over the whole 1.4 million square miles of this maritime area. Other countries have competing claims including Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia. There have been skirmishes and China has illegally transformed some of the reefs into naval bases. When people ask me to explain the whole situation, I tell those who are truly interested to read about the whole maritime area – its geography, history and the issues that need to be resolved.

The South China Sea conflict is a classic study in geopolitics, the study of the Earth’s geography on politics and international relations. It focuses on political power linked to geographic areas. This maritime area is a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean that stretches from the Malacca Straits to the Straits of Taiwan with an area of around 1,400,000 square miles or 3,500,000 square kilometers. This sea has tremendous strategic importance. One-third of the world’s shipping passes  through it, over $3 trillion in trade each year. It is the main transport lane between China, Japan, Korea and most of ASEAN countries with Europe, Africa, Middle East and South Asia. It also contains lucrative fisheries which are crucial to the food security of millions in Southeast Asia and China. Huge oil and gas reserves are believed to lie beneath its seabed.

There are competing claims which include:

• Indonesia, China and Taiwan over waters northeast of the Natuna Islands

• Philippines, China and Taiwan over Scarborough Shoal

• Vietnam, China, Taiwan and the Philippines over the waters west of the Spratly Islands

• China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands.

The most vigorous claimants are China and Vietnam whose maritime vessels have clashed several times over the Paracel Islands.

For those who seriously want to understand the South China Sea in terms of geopolitics, I strongly recommend the book The South China Sea : The Struggle for Power in Asia  by Bill Hayton (2014). He examines the history of the area and, more important, the potential for conflict in the region. He writes:

“ Economic competition, superpower logic, and populist nationalism are increasing the chances of conflict. The South China is the first place where Chinese ambition has come face to face with American strategic resolve. Dozens of other players from medium sized countries to pint sized politicians are seeking to gain some advantage from the unfolding confrontation. Interests are being assessed and alliances formed: strategic partnerships, mutual defense treaties – a web of commitments binding the world to the future of this region.”

It traces the history of this maritime region. It begins with Prehistory to 1500; then 1500 to 1948; then 1946 to 1995. The next chapters cover the present conflicts over territorial sovereignty. It also contains lively stories of individuals who shaped current conflicts – businessmen, scientists, shippers, archaeologists, soldiers, diplomats. Hayton is able to make the complex history and contemporary reality of the South China Sea understandable.

A good companion book is War By Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft by Robert D. Blackwell and Jennifer M. Harris (2018). Today nations increasingly carry out geopolitical combat through economic means. Policies governing everything from trade and investment to energy and exchange rates are wielded as tools to win diplomatic allies, punish adversaries and coerce those in between.

Geoeconomics is usually defined as the use of economic instruments to promote and defend national interests and to produce beneficial geopolitical results; and the effects of other nations’ economic actions  on a country’s geopolitical goals.

Until the Trump era, the United States relied more on military means to achieve its international goals. China was the leading practitioner of geoeconomics. Some examples are launching a new development organization to rival the World Bank and laying the groundwork for a new Silk Road across Europe. It also uses specific geoeconomic threats such as threatening to stop Chinese tourists from visiting certain countries. It once threatened  Norway with stopping the import of salmon and Australia’s sale of coal to China.  Trump has started using this with trade sanctions and imposing  higher tariffs. China’s  geoeconomic strategy has been tarnished recently with stories of very high interest rates leading to foreclosures by China.

The main reason geoeconomics has become a popular weapon is because some countries have been economic superpowers with excess wealth that can be utilized as weapons. However, the pandemic is bringing recession to all the countries; and, it has become questionable whether countries like China, Russia or the United States can still use economic aid as a means of winning allies.

As the capability of the Great Powers to use economic aid begins to lessen because of the effects of the pandemic on their domestic economies, there is a growing possibility that these superpowers will resort to military means again.  The possibility of military conflicts will begin to rise as what is happening now in the South China Sea.

An invitation for young writers, ages 8-15: Young Writers’ Hangout is back with Neni SR Cruz!  Zoom with us on July 25, 2-3 pm. For details, contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945-2273216

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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