Simmering South China Sea dispute


There is a simmering geopolitical pot that is likely to boil over dangerously if the heat beneath it is turned up, probably even by a fraction.

Beijing’s claims to rocky outcrops and reefs in the South China Sea, which it has occupied and fortified, have been thrown out by international arbitrators. But possession being nine-tenths of the law, the Chinese government has established military bases on them and is arguing that they represent the edge of Chinese territory. Yet these disputed reefs and rocks are variously claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

Washington has led the refusal to accept Beijing’s territorial ambitions. From its point of view, most of the South China Sea is made up of international waters, which mean that there is freedom of navigation for any vessel from any country. To reinforce this point, US naval vessels and warplanes have been sailing close to or flying over the Chinese installations.

The Pentagon has reported that earlier this week, a Chinese warship almost collided with a US naval vessel which was sailing within 22 kilometers of the Spratly Islands, inside what China claims as its territorial waters. On a number of such interceptions in the past, US officers suspected that Chinese commanders had been preparing to fire a warning shot across their bows. If this ever happens, it will be a serious escalation of the current confrontation, more serious certainly than a non-fatal collision of rival warships. Two vessels striking each other could be ascribed to a miscalculation by either or both commanders. To fire a shot, even a blank, would be a clear indication that the rules of engagement have changed.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is currently standing toe to toe with President Donald Trump exchanging ever harder punches in their trade row. After initial conciliatory noises, Beijing’s stance hardened. It must be hoped that the Trump administration appreciates the significance of this stiffening resistance. The outside world has too often failed to understand the importance of “face” in Chinese society, a quality that extends beyond mere reputation. Xi is very unlikely to back down in the trade tariff war without being able to claim some level of victory, some beneficial compromise. And it is possible to envisage roughly what that might be, allowing both sides to claim they got what they wanted.

By contrast it is almost completely impossible to see how Beijing can compromise over its seizure and occupation of internationally-disputed bits of territory far out in the South China Sea. It has failed to win its case through international arbitration. It has clearly acted illegally in taking control of these rocks and reefs. It must be assumed, however, that the Chinese leadership did not act without a long-term plan. The calculation almost certainly included the fact that China had become such a pivotal trading partner with the rest of the world that in the end no one would wish to risk military confrontation by trying for force it to withdraw. In 50 or a hundred years from now, when Beijing had fully inherited Washington’s superpower role, it could force through international recognition that it controlled all these outcrops and with them the entire South China Sea.

Had there been the slightest possibility that Beijing might have withdrawn these maritime garrisons, Trump’s trade war has surely put an end to it.