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The USA's pre-emptive war in the South China Sea

By Muhammad Mahmood (People's Daily Online)    08:59, May 29, 2016

Muhammad Mahmood’s recent article on Bangladeshi Financial Express argues that US "pivot" to Asia is militarizing the Pacific region and what China does in the South China Sea is only reaction to the US provocation.

On the surface it looks like a territorial dispute among littoral states surrounding a sea. The dispute covers mostly some uninhibited islands in the South China Sea. But alongside these islands also include a number of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbank and reefs. There are hypothetical (as nothing scientifically proven yet) claims that there are vast reserves of natural resources, mostly oil and/or gas, around these islands. Also this sea provides livelihood to a large number of people from fishing. Most importantly, it is also a major and very busy sea lane. We encounter such disputes quite often around the world including in our part of the world. In most cases these disputes are settled through negotiation among claimant countries, occasionally resorting to some kind of international arbitrations. There is no record that such disputes led to any serious armed conflicts. Therefore, there should be no reason why that cannot be the case in the South China Sea.

But it appears that the sea has become a fully armed zone where not only the claimant countries are involved in this armed posturing but countries such as the USA and its two principal dutiful allies in the region, Australia and Japan, are also armed posturing there; and even India has joined in the armed fray in the region. While armed posturing by the claimant countries are understandable, it looks like these external players are up to some kind of a much bigger game. What that bigger game could be?

While countries surrounding the South China Sea have been bickering over their respective claims for centuries, the reality on the ground has already been settled. According to Robert Kaplan, China is in possession of twelve geographical features, Taiwan one, Vietnam twenty-one, Malaysia five and the Philippines nine. In other words, facts have already been created on the ground. A concept we are very familiar with in our part of the world with Kashmir where India has created its own reality on the ground for now almost close to 70 years. This gives you an idea of what real politics is all about. However that did not stop to make claims or counterclaims to continue. China and Vietnam present rival historical claims on these islands. Taiwan and China's claims are exactly identical based on historical records which of course are contested by Vietnam with their counter historical claims. The Philippines's claim is based on geographic proximity. Malaysia and Brunei's claims are based on their rights to economic exclusion zones as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). So all littoral countries are resorting to their own reasoning that would make their claims plausible.

To resolve the claims and counter-claims, China favours bilateral negotiations which are quite understandable, but others want the disputes internationalised which is also understandable if one looks at it from the tactical point of view. But how effective the international route as a tactic is questionable except trying to stir up some kind of confrontational posturing to draw in the USA for backing up their claims. Attempts at negotiations by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have not yielded any positive outcome rather left the regional forum divided. It is quite possible countries can join together to work out a workable solution as there does not appear to be any other alternative than to peacefully resolve the issue. Indeed, the situation in the South China Sea has been stable since 2002 when China and ASEAN reached an agreement which stipulated that no concerning party should take unilateral action to alter the status quo in the South China Sea. The initiative was proposed by China in 2000.The status quo prevailed until the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked for a "multilateral approach'' to resolve the dispute in 2010. This reignited tensions otherwise in a fairly stable climate for eight years among the disputants in the region. It was a shot across the bow signalling the US intention to return to or to rebalance the power equation in the region in response to a peaceful rise of China economically and also likely potential rise as a major military power. Now that the shine on US advocacy of democracy and human rights has completely gone, it can now count on only one more thing where it remains not only powerful but also largely unchallenged - its military power. This is the only last armour the USA has to project its power now. From the US perspective this is a zero-sum game; therefore, China must have to be boxed in.


(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Editor:Wu Chengliang,Bianji)

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