South China Sea: Rivalry in Troubled Waters

Been the axis and major maritime zone rich in energy resources, the South China Sea has continued to sharpen the appetite of the Southeast Asian countries in recent months. Foremost among them China, anxious to preserve its influence and economic interests.

Analysts and experts from Southeast Asia often describe it, not without reason, “second Persian Gulf“. The South China Sea covers a vast area of 3,500,000 square kilometers stretching from Singapore in the south-western to Taiwan in the northeast, it has become a highly geo-strategic area. First, it represents a vital artery for international maritime commerce: according to Chinese authorities, nearly seventy thousand ships passing through it each year. Second, this area contains tremendous oil and gas resources, even if the data on the subject are still very patchy. The complex situation does not help promoting understanding among the nearby countries, whose energy appetite have recently sharpened along their territorial ambitions.

In fact, tensions have increased in the region since the spring. May 26, a hundred miles off the coast of Vietnam, an incident happened between a Chinese vessel and a Vietnamese research vessel responsible for carrying out seismic surveys. Incidentally, the second suffered serious damage. This face-to-face conflict, reflecting a fever that some consider the most serious one in twenty years. It came with consequences: three weeks after the incident, the government in Hanoi, under the pressure from white-hot nationalism, has conducted naval maneuvers. The aim was clearly to curb Beijing.

In addition to Hanoi, whose aims include both the Paracel Islands in the north and the Spratly Islands in the south – two uninhabited islands with large quantities of fishery resources and oil in the sheltered waters, other nations including Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim for their share in the Spratly. The claims of Indonesia are on the Natuna Islands, further south.

QUARREL OF NAMES

This rivalry is reflected into the name chosen to refer the South China Sea. If China regularly referred to the “South Sea”, Vietnam speaks of “East Sea” and the Philippines uses the term of “western Philippine Sea.” Manila, based on a petition by its own public opinion, called for the adoption of the name “Sea of South-East Asia”, considered it more neutral. A query that has, so far, found no positive response.

In March 2010, China announced that it regarded the South China Sea as a matter of national interest, as well as Taiwan or Tibet. There were several explanations. The first is the story: Beijing maintains that it was the first to discover the islands located in the South China Sea in the second century BC, the Han dynasty, and its fishermen exploit the resources for centuries. The second is economic: Today, no fewer than 80% of its imports pass through these waters. The third, is strategic concern. The South China Sea is a kind of “protective shield” against the United States, the other major key player in the Pacific.

ARMS RACE?

Vietnam has opted for a strategy of international disputes, approaching to his old enemy the United States. The countries bordering the South China desperately avoid being alone with Chinese power which is no longer a source of economic wealth, but a very real strategic threat. In contrast, Beijing is aware that it is more difficult to deal with an united opposition and tried to promote a bilateral approach, which involved dealing directly, and preferably behind the scenes, with each of the parties.

So far, China has blown hot and cold. On the one hand, it has increased the apparent gesture of conciliation, as evidenced by Hu Jintao’s speech, on “harmonious Asia” and the agreement reached on July 20 in Bali (Indonesia) with ASEAN (Association of Asia South East) on a road to promote “pragmatic cooperation” in the South China Sea. On the other, however, it has continued to strengthen its power. Steadily increasing its military budget – it reached $ 119 billion in 2010, ranking the country the second in the world behind the United States (698 billion) – and its first aircraft carrier was launched on August 10. These indications suggest that China will not soon give up its ambitions. At the risk of opening a pernicious arms race in the region.