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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Update on the Chinese-Philippine Standoff

Things have quieted down temporarily, but the long term outlook is for war. The Guardian provides some context:
The tension in the South China Sea centres on control over resources. According to a Chinese study, the area could contain the equivalent of 213bn barrels of oil: 80% of Saudi Arabia's established reserves. BP has estimated that the region also holds gas reserves five times greater than those now identified in the US. Some south-east Asia specialists point out that, from Beijing's point of view, China is being robbed of about 1.4m barrels a day through "illegal" exploitation of hydrocarbons by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

In recent years the exploration and exploitation of energy and fish reserves have led to increasingly frequent clashes. Last month Chinese patrol boats came to the rescue of a dozen trawlers cornered by Philippine coast guards near the Scarborough shoal, prompting Manila to send a warship. The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, said China's territorial claims were creeping closer and closer to the archipelago.

US re-engagement with Asia, bringing it closer to its Philippine ally but also its former enemy Vietnam, has set alarm bells ringing in Beijing. China has recently shown signs of a more flexible position, at least on the diplomatic front. However, an editorial in the Global Times, a subsidiary of the People's Daily, last month advocated establishing a "rule of 'peaceful frictions' in this region. Even if a battle erupts, China should not only conduct determined strikes, but should end them in a timely fashion."

In its report Stirring Up the South China Sea, published last month, the International Crisis Group (ICG) analyses Chinese strategy. Legend has it that nine dragons are stirring up the sea in this area, but according to the experts a plethora of government agencies, including the navy and the foreign ministry, are eager to grab a share of the real action.

"The conflicting mandates and lack of co-ordination among Chinese government agencies ... have stoked tensions" and thwarted foreign ministry efforts to settle disputes, according to the ICG report. The fleets of two paramilitary forces – the China Marine Surveillance agency and the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command – "are busily expanding and modernising, in order to tip the balance of power increasingly in China's favour", says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University..The army has hardly ever been directly involved in clashes in the South China Sea. But the professor believes it is using other agencies as pawns, there being good reason to suppose that the authorities in Beijing soon take control of what may start as uncoordinated incidents.
China is also backing away from a diplomatic solution. The Voice of America reports:
China says it is ready to respond to “any escalation” by the Philippines, as a tense, month-long standoff continues over a disputed group of islands in the South China Sea.

The state-run Xinhua news agency on Tuesday quoted Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying as saying Beijing is not optimistic about the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, located about 230 kilometers off the northwestern Philippines.

On Monday, Fu summoned a top Philippine diplomat in Beijing to make a “serious representation” over the situation. Fu told Charge D'affaires Alex Chua that Manila was escalating tensions and making it more difficult to reach a negotiated settlement.

The standoff began on April 10 when Chinese surveillance ships prevented a Philippine warship from arresting Chinese fishermen near the rocky islands, which both sides claim as sovereign territory.

China has already rejected a request by the Philippines to refer the issue to an international court.
The Christian Science Monitor reports:
A month-long standoff in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines picked up a notch today, with China accusing the Philippines of "continuous provocation" and warning that it is prepared to respond to any escalations.
Moreover, China is now actively barring Philippine fishermen from using part of the dispute shoal:
Chinese maritime vessels have started imposing fishing restrictions on Filipino fishermen returning to Panatag Shoal by denying them entry inside the lagoon.

Located 120 nautical miles from mainland Zambales, Panatag Shoal used to be the target and practice area of US jetfighters during air drills when they had military bases here.

It is now in the crosshairs of a festering territorial standoff between the Philippines and China.

“Our fishermen who returned to the area were barred from entering the lagoon to fish by Chinese maritime vessels using their floodlights to drive them away,” Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora in Zambales province said yesterday.

Speaking on the mayor’s behalf, Edora’s secretary RJ Bautista also complained that while the Chinese maritime vessels were doing this to Filipinos, they allowed their own fishing vessels and fishermen inside the lagoon.

Fearing for their safety, Filipino fishermen are now simply fishing outside the lagoon.
In other words, China is seeing how far it can push before the U.S. pushes back. In a common, and rather transparent tactic used to great effect by Hitler, China professes to be the victim, while it acts as the aggressor.

I've written before about how the close economic ties and competition for the same resources make it more likely, not less, that China and the U.S. will wind up at war with one another. I quoted the following from The Future of War:
Conflicts arise from friction, particularly friction involving the fundamental interests of different nations. The less interdependence there is, the fewer the areas of serious friction. The more interdependence there is, the greater the areas of friction, and, therefore, the greater the potential for conflict. Two widely separated nations that trade little with each other are unlikely to go to war--Brazil is unlikely to fight Madagascar precisely because they have so little to do with each other. France and Germany, on the other hand, which have engaged in extensive trade and transnational finance, have fought three wars with each other over about seventy years. Interdependence was the root of the conflicts, not the deterrent.
The Soviet Union and the U.S. were able to avoid war because the two nations were not closely tied to one another, and were able to operate in separate spheres. At one time, the same could largely be said of the Chinese (notwithstanding a proxy war between China/Soviet and the U.S. in Vietnam). But as China competes with the U.S. over economic power, political and military influence in Asia, and seeks to exert control over important shipping lanes, it is more and more likely that the two countries will slide toward war. I'm not predicting one immediately. But what started out as a minor dispute over fishing rights has all the signs of turning into a major challenge to peace in the region.

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