Tensions between the US and China over the South China Sea, which have been rising over the past year, spike dramatically when an international tribunal in The Hague delivered a sweeping rebuke on 12 July of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, including its construction of artificial islands, and found that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis. The case in the obscure Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was initiated by the Philippines government which has clashed repeatedly with China for control of disputed islands and reefs. China boycotted the court's verdict.
Alongside North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and the enduring India-Pakistan tensions, the conflict in the South China Sea has now become one of Asia’s major flashpoints. It is where the most direct confrontation between the world’s two largest economies and military powers is taking place. In this sense it has become the frontline in the unfolding ‘Cold War’ between the giants of the eastern and western Pacific.
The conflict hinges on rival claims to uninhabited rocky features – most are too small to count as islands – and control over the surrounding waters. China claims sovereignty over more than 80% of the South China Sea, a claim formulated as the ‘nine-dash line’ – a u-shaped demarcation line that cuts southwards towards Malaysia. China’s claim overlaps territorial claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The two main island groups in the South China Sea, the Spratlys and Paracels, are claimed in their entirety by Beijing. Vietnam also claims the whole of the Paracels, while four other governments claim parts of the Spratlys. This is partly a scramble for natural resources, with significant oil and gas deposits underneath the seabed.[caption id="attachment_36906" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Airstrip on Chinese controlled Yongxing (Woody Island) in the Paracels.[/caption]
More importantly the South China Sea conflict centres on its strategic position as the “throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans” in the words of US geopolitical expert and former Pentagon adviser Robert D Kaplan. This is a scrummage for economic, military and political hegemony being fought between the US and China, followed and supported or opposed by a constellation of smaller regional powers. East Asia is a decisive region for global capitalism, accounting for over one-third of global GDP, where China has supplanted the US and Japan as the major economic power but now faces a determined pushback.
China recently warned the US not to turn the South China Sea into a “geopolitical chessboard”, which is an accurate description. But Beijing’s actions have fed anxieties around the region and therefore ultimately facilitated Washington’s geopolitical agenda in Asia. Both camps accuse each other of militarising the South China Sea – a classic case of pot versus kettle. The losers from this maritime turf war are the masses throughout the region who must shoulder an even bigger burden as military expenditure soars and right-wing nationalism makes advances.
There have been tensions and even small scale military clashes between some of the antagonists in the South China Sea in the past, but the conflict today has assumed a different character as a test of strength between the two biggest superpowers. It is no accident that the conflict is sharpening as the global capitalist economy lurches from one crisis to another and nationalism and economic protectionism are on the rise.
China’s more assertive stance and more vigorous pursuit of its nine-dash line claim is therefore a reflection of its economic transition into a global power with a major stake in the capitalist world market and the markets of its Asian neighbours. This also explains China’s military build-up and the Chinese state’s need to project power outside its borders. Chinese military spending has increased by 325% since the start of the century – the most rapid expansion by any major nation. US military spending rose by 70% in the same period, but from a much higher level.
While China is engaged in a process of military catch-up, becoming the world’s second highest military spender in 2008, its still lags the US, which spends almost three times more per year than China- $596bn versus $215bn in 2015.
Recognising its loss of influence in Asia, the US ruling class is pushing back partly on the economic front but primarily by revamping its military role in the region and positioning itself as the guarantor of stability with China cast as a destabilising force.
In 2011, the Obama Administration unveiled its “pivot” doctrine, according to which the US is redeploying the majority of its global military assets to the Asia-Pacific. This is also backed up by an economic pact, the ultra-neoliberal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with twelve member countries under US stewardship. The TPP was launched earlier this year and despite official denials is specifically designed to exclude China.
Summing up the rationale for the creation of the TPP, Obama wrote in the Washington Post (2 May 2016) that, “America should write the rules. America should call the shots. Other countries should play by the rules that America and our partners set, and not the other way around.” The US approach towards the South China Sea, while couched in more diplomatic language, manifests the same “we write the rules” arrogance.
Japan, under the right-wing nationalist government of Shinzo Abe, has embarked on a new militarisation drive that departs from half a century of official pacifism. Support for Japanese militarism, which has its own territorial disputes with China in the East China Sea, is an important element of the US ‘pivot’ doctrine. But this is a potential Pandora’s Box, unleashing forces that the US cannot control.
The US ‘pivot’ consists of establishing new US bases, upgrading military alliances, and also kick-starting an arms race, all with the aim of containing China.
This does, as many commentators have said, represent the start of a new ‘Cold War’ between the two superpowers especially in the Asia-Pacific. But it is different – more complex – compared to the ‘Cold War’ between the US and Stalinist Russia in the past. Today’s opposing camps are less settled and stable; they are built upon shifting alliances with sharp divisions within the camps. In South Korea, for example, a US ally and base for 24,000 US troops, the resurgence of Japanese militarism as encouraged by the Obama Administration is placing increasing strains on their relationship.
On the other hand, the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the ‘pro-independence’ Democratic Progressive Party as Taiwan’s president marks an important foreign policy shifts towards the US and away from China. The DPP government wants to join the US-led TPP in an attempt to reduce its economic dependence on China, although China will strive to block or drag out this process. The US is preparing more military sales to Taiwan and pushing the island to develop a stronger military industry, further antagonising Beijing.
For its part, Beijing bases its territorial claims on ‘historic rights’ backed up by old maps and documents and – ironically – by ‘Western’ dictated treaties vis-a-vis Japanese imperialism’s possessions surrendered at the end of World War II. This includes the Cairo Declaration of 1943 and the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, although there is no mention of the Spratlys or the Paracels in either document.
China’s ‘historical’ claims are not supported by real evidence. The disputed islands are uninhabited and so there is little hard historical evidence to support any of the claimant nations. The true history of the South China Sea is one of shared usage first by Malay, Arab and Tamil seafarers, and later by Chinese ships in or around the 10th century. The region’s history therefore speaks for a cooperative, shared approach to harnessing the sea’s resources. It does not lend support to the territorial carve up taking place today.
This is an imperialist conflict with both Washington and Beijing seeking to safeguard their interests in Asia through military and economic pressure. Socialists oppose the US ‘pivot’ and neo-liberal capitalist economic blocs such as the TPP, and call for the withdrawal of US forces from Asia. But capitalist bloc also oppose the Chinese regime’s military policies towards neighbouring states, which replicate the heavy-handed methods it uses against workers and the poor in China. Socialists support the right of self-determination for Taiwan, a key ingredient in the South China Sea conflict, while the CCP pursues an imperialist policy towards the island not fundamentally different from that of the US or Japan. China’s warning that it is prepared to forcibly retake Taiwan in the event of a political crisis that threatens its interests (such as a declaration of independence), is also intended as a deterrent to the people of Hong Kong, Tibet and other rebellious regions.