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

A Lookout watches on the bridge of the U.S.S. John C. Stennis aircraft carrier in the South China Sea on April 25, 2016.

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.

US MILITARY BASES: In fact China has been surrounded by US military bases in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam in the Pacific and much closer to China with the bases in Japan (Okinawa), Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. The USA can also draw on from military bases in the British Indian Ocean Territories. As Chalmers Johnson points out that all foreign military bases are designed for offence. There is no sign of the US to loosen the noose it set up for China; now attempts are afoot to tighten it further. The encircling of Chine is so comprehensive that it can mean one thing - choke China.

While the people in Okinawa demonstrated vigorously against the presence of US military bases there, the US occupation of Okinawa has been going on for a long time since the occupation of Japan in 1945. Again, according to Chalmers Johnson, military bases are the American version of colonies. A regime change was carried out quietly in Japan when the then Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama dared to show some sympathy for the demonstrators; in comes Shinzo Abe who is not only striving hard to militarise Japan (which now the USA fully endorses but seriously upsets its another close ally, South Korea) but also to double the size of the armed forces without any constitutional constraints (may be, to serve as a mercenary force for the USA). Japan fully backed a statement released by the G-7 summit held in the atom-bombed city of Hiroshima very recently (April, 2016) asking China to refrain from taking "unilateral actions". China pointed out that Japan had hijacked the platform (G-7 Summit) in an attempt to contain China. China further alleged that the statement was the result of Japan's consistent efforts to hype up the South China Sea issue, despite none of the G-7 countries are party to the dispute.

As for China, it obviously refuses to accept the status quo based on the US hegemony. The South China Sea for China is a "core issue'' at par with Taiwan. This sea route is vital for China's economic engagement with the rest of the world. China accuses the USA inflating the issue in the South China Sea to tip geopolitical power in its favour, even accusing the USA of deliberately provoking China to react. The South China Sea is now teeming with US warships with cutting edge offensive weapons, missile destroyers and strategic bombers thus militarising the sea while accusing China for doing the same. But China sees its acts as an act of self-defence; and definitely China was not the first country to deploy weapons or conduct military manoeuvres in the region, rather China just responded to when the USA sent armed naval vessels to the sea. For China it was just a case of self-preservation.

US ADMIRAL VISITS NEW DELHI: Admiral Harry Harris visited New Delhi in the very beginning of March this year and urged India to align closely with the USA in a security dialogue, military exercises and armament purchase (India now stands as the second largest armament buyer from the USA only after Saudi Arabia). This emphasis on security as a strategy underlines the real US motive - it conveys insecurity in the region. Then what is the source of this insecurity? From the US perspective it is clear - China. This is to take advantage of the current strained relationship between China and its neighbours to maintain its hegemony by convincing many of these countries that they still need the USA to underwrite their security. To "pivot" to Asia is consistent with that strategy with the emphasis on security and therefore to militarise the Pacific region. The USA's strong presence in the Asia-Pacific Region is nothing new, it all have started with the colonisation of the Philippines in 1898 and Korea and Vietnam wars happened in our life time. The current phase of pivoting to Asia is a code word for more aggressive form of militarisation to stop China to rise peacefully. To achieve that, foster as much and as many alliances as possible and India should also be a part of that strategy.

The Admiral also canvassed for a quadrilateral security dialogue involving the US, Japan, Australia and India with the aim to pose a collective challenge to China in the South China Sea. India's previous government rejected such an idea but the US now is getting a positive vive from the current government which would likely bring these two military establishments closer. India, meanwhile, is getting increasingly involved in the South China Sea through its oil exploration agreement with Vietnam and to enforce "freedom of navigation operations" in the South China Sea (as if China has blocked it anyway; to do so will harm China more than any other countries). It has also established a satellite tracking centre in the South of Vietnam. What India needs to understand is that helping the USA to maintain its dominant position in the face of rising Chinese power will only lead to instability in Asia. Now it appears that the bilateral military relations have progressed further where both the USA and India have agreed in principle to share logistics, a code word for allowing the USA to establish military bases in India, to counter the growing maritime assertiveness of China in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Australia is also taking active interest in the South China Sea region. It has special relationship with the USA through the ANZUS defence treaty. Of course, this treaty's scope, like NATO, has widened to encompass the whole world now. As one of the two principal allies of the USA in the region, its preferred option is to maintain "status quo" which obviously benefits the USA and its own geo-political interests. But if China continues to grow stronger economically, it will also definitely grow stronger militarily and politically. And that will seriously undermine the "status quo". Meanwhile, Australia has also been under pressure from the USA to take a more aggressive stance against China (its largest trading partner) and to conduct its own freedom of navigation operations. Australia, a country facing no external threats, got down to searching for an enemy. The search ended in the form of a Defence White Paper which has identified the enemy it has been looking for. It ought to be China, a country which has embraced "might is right approach". So Australia must move forward to face it. One would have expected the economic reality will have a sobering effect, but that is not the case, it appears.

This aggressive military posturing of Australia comes with a plan to revamp the Navy (given that the battle field is a sea) which will sail forward both above and under the water to meet the new-found enemy. So far the Australian Navy's operational activities in the recent times centred on towing back refugee and asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia. This does neither look promising nor credible as a force. The Defence White Paper envisages an expenditure of A$195 billion over the next ten-year period and that will be very well received by the US armament industry, if not anything. The Australian armed forces in a historical perspective since the end of the World War II appear to be performing the duties of an auxiliary armed force for the US to support its (US) wars of aggression and occupation from the Far East Asia to the Middle East. It is purely an illusion that Australia can flex its muscle in any form or shape with China if the big brother is not at the same time standing right behind it holding its hands. However, China did caution Australia not to take part or conduct in a way that would compromise the stability in the region.

In this melee Japan utilised the situation to its advantage to nationalise Diaoyu island (Senkaku to the Japanese) in 2012 rejecting its status as a disputed island in the East China Sea. The USA has also shown a high degree of generosity to Japan in a very difficult economic time for the country by asking Australia to source its planned submarine fleet from Japan instead of Germany or France. This would have further strengthened the military ties between Australia and Japan and that would work in favour of the USA's strategic interests in the region. But on the latest count it now appears that Japan has been dropped from the list of source countries for procuring 12 the latest state-of-the-art submarines at a cost of A$50 billion. The final decision has been made - the winner is France (French state-owned company DCNS). This decision was influenced more by domestic political considerations as a federal election is likely to be held in the middle of this year. Japan is obviously very upset about it and asked for an explanation why it (it is Mitsubishi) did not win the contract. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop assured Japan that the award of the contract to France would no way impact on the very good bilateral relations with Japan. To look at it realistically I think she is right given the special strategic partnership that has developed between the two countries since the end of the World War II.

In light of the recently introduced new security laws which enable the Japanese armed forces to expand their military operation overseas, there is now a new agreement reached between the Japanese and the Australian armies to undertake joint military exercises. The Japan armed forces already took part in the military exercise held between the USA and Australia. This was done to bolster the joint military actions between these three countries to counter the Chinese growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. It has indeed been a problematic issue for Australia for a long time balancing its self-proclaimed role as the Deputy Sheriff for the USA in the Asia-Pacific region on the one hand and pursuing its economic self-interests in the region, on the other. However, a country where people like to have a flutter now and then, the collective wisdom of the Australian political establishment is to put the bet only one way, the USA.

Meanwhile, an agreement between the USA and the Philippines allows US armed forces to access the disputed areas in the South China Sea. This is a major departure from the USA policy of neutrality regarding the disputed territories so long the freedom of navigation is not obstructed. China in cooperation with other regional countries kept the South China Sea as one of the safest sea lanes in the world. In fact, it is the USA that has made it very dangerous sea lane by deploying its massive heavily armed naval vessels including aircraft carriers. The US does not seem to understand that freedom of navigation does not imply freedom to do whatever you like - a point China emphasises.

This ramping-up clearly signals a more aggressive intention of the USA. This agreement clearly indicates what are the USA's real intentions - if necessary, to directly intervene in those islands. But that is not going to happen as China has made it absolutely clear that it will not be trapped in the US strategy. The US can not obstruct China's activities to defend its sovereign rights, but by escalating armed posturing, the US military is trying to increase the costs to China to defend itself and to assure its (US) allies and partners in the region of its support. Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, warned the USA that making the Asia-Pacific region a second Middle-East would not do any good to the USA. China believes it has the capabilities to stand up to the USA and its allies to defend its sovereignty if situation so demands. China has had experience coping with confronting the USA in the past in Korea and Vietnam.

By Muhammad Mahmood and posted on the Financial Express, 5 May 2016.

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