The disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea are approaching a tipping point. As former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino said last week: “The disputes cannot be resolved any time soon, if at all. The most that can be done is to prevent them developing into armed conflict.”
It now appears that may be almost impossible. And any ensuing conflict will not be just an extended version of the skirmishes between fishing vessels and patrol boats that have gone on for years.
No, it will be the fire next time. And every country in the region will be sucked into the cauldron.
Let us recap this frighteningly nasty can of worms.
The body of water around which Southeast Asian nations lie is the South China Sea – not the West Philippine Sea, nor the East Sea, as Manila and Hanoi now prefer to call it.
It’s called the South China Sea because it sits south of China, not because it “belongs” to China, any more than the Irish Sea belongs to Ireland, or the Persian Gulf to Iran.
There are six claimants to all or part of this sea, which is traversed by more than a third of the world’s shipping and holds rich fishing stocks and vast reserves of oil and gas.
Only three of the six claimants to the South China Sea really count: China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
An infamous “nine-dash line” marking Beijing’s claim runs around the entire sea, hugging the coast of the Philippines and Vietnam and swallowing all their offshore territories.
Naturally, the Philippines and Vietnam are furious, and their fury has recently boiled over on several fronts.
It began in June, when Hanoi passed a law stating that the Spratly and Paracel islands, which pepper the sea, are Vietnamese territory.
China retorted by setting up a municipality and a military garrison on the Paracels, which it has occupied since evicting the Vietnamese in 1974.
Concurrently, Beijing beefed up its presence at the Scarborough Shoal, 200 kilometres west of Subic Bay, forcing a dangerous confrontation with Manila.
At the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh last month, the Philippines and Vietnam urged their colleagues to publicly support them. Cambodia, this year’s chairman of the group, would not allow it.
Under pressure from China, it ruled that the group’s closing statement could not mention the South China Sea disputes. As a result, no final communiqué was issued for the first time in 45 years.
This rupture of solidarity led to bitter recriminations. As well as China confronting members of ASEAN, we have the group fighting within itself – so much so, that after intemperate accusations of “dirty politics”, Cambodia replaced its ambassador in Manila.
Exacerbating matters, Washington, already imbued with growing anti-Beijing sentiment, has been bolstering the resolve of ASEAN’s claimants, while Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand strengthen their ties to China.
Consequently, we now have two ominous face-offs: one between the rival sovereignty claimants, and a much broader strategic tussle between Beijing and Washington.
“The South China Sea has become more dangerous because it has become a forum for rivalry between the US and China, and an uncomfortably probable setting for a clash between them,” Michael Wesley, of Australia’s Lowy Institute, says.
With pro-Beijing Cambodia remaining ASEAN chairman till year’s end, then Western-inclined rival claimant Brunei taking over, followed by Sinophilic Myanmar, the prospects for averting a clash look dismal.
As well, Surin Pitsuwan, the group’s pragmatic secretary-general, will soon end his five-year term and hand over to Vietnam’s Le Luong Minh, a colourless bureaucrat who dances to Hanoi’s tune.
Minh will be the opposite of Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, in that he will do his best to ensure that future communiqués highlight the sovereignty disputes.
Could China back down? Not a chance. It will go full bore with its claims, and very soon its warships and submarines will be patrolling the disputed waters. One mis-step and the fire will begin.
Contact our regional insider Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org