South China Sea: Asia’s Cauldron

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

First came the Philippine expansion of EDCA allowing US presence in nine Philippine military bases. Then came the announcement of the Australian purchase of nuclear submarines for use in the Indo-Pacific area. Third is the visit of the South Korean president to Japan to end its longstanding adversarial relationship and form an alliance against a “common threat.”

All these events happened in the last few weeks. The common motivation is the increased aggressive policy of Xi Jinping. The increased aggressiveness and expansionist foreign policies of China has made the South China Sea (SCS) the “cauldron of the world.”

It has made this body of water the most vulnerable to possible conflicts between the two superpowers, China and the United States. Even in the Philippines, most observers do not appreciate the global strategic importance of the SCS. According to Robert Kaplan, author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific: “The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans – the mass of connectivity tissue where global sea routes coalesce.” The straits and channels which will serve as entrance and exit to the SCS like the Malacca Strait located between Malaysia and Sumatra are critical pathways and serve as chokepoints.

Half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide pass through the SCS. The oil that passes through the SCS on the way to East Asia is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.

According to Kaplan: “Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea.  Whereas in the Persian Gulf, only energy is transported; in the South China Sea, you have energy, finished goods and unfinished goods. In addition to centrality of locations, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 cubic feet of natural gas.  If Chinese calculations are correct that the South China Sea will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil, then the South China Sea contains more oil than any area of the globe except Saudi Arabia.”

It should be noted that China is desperate for new sources of energy. It consumes over 10 percent of world oil production and 20 percent of energy consumed on the planet.  Its oil reserves account only for 1.1 percent of the world total. It is not surprising that China is desperate to control the SCS.

China’s desire to control the SCS is similar to America’s desire to control the Caribbean Sea in the 19th and early 20th century. The struggle for control of the SCS is not a moral struggle. The Second World War was a moral struggle against fascism. The Cold War was a moral struggle against communism and the post-Cold War struggle in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East was a struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy. The struggle for supremacy in the SCS is simply about trade, business and economic power.

The struggle is simply one of competing national interests. There are no philosophical questions to ponder. The alliances are formed simply on the basis of national interests. In the case of the Philippines, it is simply unfortunate that China wants and has taken over Philippine sovereignty against the wishes of the Philippines.

In the present state of international affairs, the question of morality has become subordinate to the questions of power. The territorial claim of China of its sovereignty over the South China Sea has no moral or legal basis.

However, domination of the SCS would lead to the pivotal air and naval domination that would make China the virtual hegemon of the Indo-Pacific region. This will make China the premier superpower in the Eastern Hemisphere with even dominant influence in the Western Hemisphere. The supremacy in the SCS will tilt the global balance of power in favor of China.

The heart of the struggle is really around the historic claims to three small archipelagos. These are the Pratas in the north, the Paracels in the northwest and the Spratlys in the southeast. The Pratas are claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan. The Vietnamese have a strong claim to the Paracels but the western part of this archipelago has been occupied by China since 1974 when Beijing took control of these islands from a failing Saigon government near the end of the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese have been more aggressive in defending the Paracels.

The Spratlys have been claimed by the Philippines based on international law. According to Kaplan:  “Unlike the Vietnamese claim to the Paracels which the Chinese privately respect and worry about, the Chinese do not respect Philippine designs on the Spratlys. Whereas Vietnam is a tough and battle-hardened warrior state, the Philippines, to repeat, constitutes a semi-failed entity with weak institutions and an extremely weak military – and the Chinese know all this. Even so, China has to keep its aggression against the Philippines in check because the Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States.”

The SCS will remain a potential arena of conflict that could cause an unnecessary cauldron of violence between the superpowers.

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