The US escalates tensions in South China Sea

By Jude Woodward

At the end of October the USA escalated tensions in the South China Sea by sending an American destroyer within the 12-mile coastal limit of Chinese held islets. Having been threatening to take some form of action against China in the South China Sea for several months, the US action when it came was rather limited. But nonetheless it was a provocative act and elicited a strong verbal response from China.

The US had claimed some action was necessary against China to ‘defend freedom of navigation’ across the Sea in the face of the alleged threat presented by China’s increased naval presence and the building of naval and other military infrastructure in the Spratly islands.

This argument is a complete sham as everyone knows that not only has China not made the slightest threat to freedom of navigation across the South China Sea, but on the contrary it is the Pentagon that has developed secret contingency plans for how to ‘blockade’ China and cut off its energy supplies precisely by obstructing its shipping routes from the Gulf via the Malacca Strait and across the South China Sea.

It is China’s concern to prevent the USA being able to conduct such a blockade that has driven China to reinforce its own defences for these vulnerable sea routes by developing docks, airstrips and other facilities on the South China Sea islets. And the USA’s strong objections and attempts to drive China out are not out of concerns for the freedom of the oceans, but because China may very soon have built up the capacity to prevent the USA closing these sea-lanes if it attempted to do so.

In fact the West’s narrative for the entire dispute with China in the South China Sea is a master class in Pentagon Newspeak. In its looking glass world, China developing naval and other strategies to prevent a US blockade, or developing the defensive capacity to repel naval action by the US against China from its coastal waters, is portrayed as Chinese ‘Anti-Access/area denial’ and thus a threat to the ‘global commons’.

However more seriously than this demonstrative action by the US, China suffered a significant diplomatic reverse when – against its objections – the Hague-based arbitration court for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled on 29 October, that it would hear at least parts of a case submitted by the Philippines against China. The Philippines’ case had been strongly encouraged by the USA. American enthusiasm for the Philippines’ submission to UNCLOS is ironic, as while China has signed up to the UNCLOS declaration, the USA itself has never ratified it. As with the International Criminal Court, the USA finds it a convenient mechanism to harry its opponents while ensuring that the USA itself can never be held subject to its rulings.

The situation in the South China Sea has been brewing as a storm centre for conflict between the USA and China since 2010 when the USA announced its ‘pivot to Asia’ – its new priority to containing the regional rise in Chinese influence.

These latest steps have been an escalation in line with that policy.

However, despite urging from the US, its regional allies have not so far followed suit. Japan has been most enthusiastic to support the US, suggesting it might ‘overfly’ the disputed areas. But it has failed to persuade South Korea to join it. And Australia has begun to row back from an initial suggestion that it might also send a warship to the area.

While neighbouring countries – like Vietnam and Malaysia – generally welcome the US presence, they have not been so keen to get drawn in the wake of a Philippines-led/USA-inspired campaign against China.

The South China Sea is set to remain a frontline in the US drive to retain its Asian preeminence in the face of China’s rise.

The above article was previously published on Jude Woodward’s New Cold War blog.