Asian countries are starting to worry about China's hegemonic ambitions in the region. Recently, political tensions sparked over the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, alarming China's neighboring countries of the possibility of Beijing's combat operations.
The Spratly Islands are a group of 100 reefs and islets of a total surface of about five square kilometers, but they spread out over 400,000 square kilometers of sea. It is an archipelago of tiny islands located in the South China Sea, halfway between Vietnam and the Philippines. The importance of the Spratly Islands lies in that they hold large reserves of oil and natural gas and are very productive fishing grounds. But its main importance is strategic: whoever can claim sovereignty over the islands would enjoy an enormously extended "exclusive economic zone," with great impact on fishing and commercial shipping.
The Eurasia Review reported that the South China Sea is a critical navigational waterway in the region, which is used from the west of the Indian Ocean to East Asia.
"If China controls this sea space, it will dictate maritime traffic, both civilian and military, across what a Chinese strategic theory predicted in 2004-05, from the Western Line (Middle East and Eastern Africa) to the Eastern Line (Asia-Pacific region). This is the critical mass of China's geo-strategic pursuit for control. This is a severe challenge for all concerned and cannot be allowed."
The islands, indeed, have a political and military strategic importance. As the Philippine Online Chronicle put it, "the Spratly Islands are of political and strategic importance to regional players like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, as well as, indirectly, the United States. At stake is potentially billions of dollars worth of oil and gas, making the exploration and control of the Spratly Islands of strategic concern. But there are also policy concerns. For example, from Beijing's perspective, as it takes on the increasing role of superpower, the South China Sea – now called the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines - is something that it should be able to project power over."
The states that are advancing claims to the archipelagos are the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. Although, geographically more distanced from the Spratly group, China claims its sovereignty over the islands on historical grounds and is presently engaged in a series of calculated acts of naval harassment against its neighbors in order to impose its will.
The latest incident happened in the Philippines. The Associated Press reported an unidentified fighter plane flew just few meters above a boatload of Filipino fishermen in Philippine waters, scaring them enough to leave the fishing area. Around the end of June, China had harassed Vietnam. It is reported that Hanoi claimed some of its fishermen had been shot at by Chinese patrols and this harassment of its fishermen is in violation of international law. China's response was a warning to Vietnam, threatening that Beijing will "take whatever measures necessary," including military action, to protect its interests in the South China Sea. Furthermore, in the month of June, as reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, China staged three days and nights of military exercises in the South China Sea, and planned to boost its offshore maritime patrol force in one of Asia's most politically sensitive regions. There has been a long list of such harassments.
U.S. Senator John McCain said the United States should help Southeast Asian nations boost their maritime forces to counter China's "unsubstantiated'" claims in the South China Sea. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe wrote on thehill.com that "Communist China, a country which - for several years - has declared much of the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone. This has threatened the other countries of the region who have overlapping claims to the 1.35 million square miles of water." He also stated: "China needs to receive a clear message that their continued harassment will no longer be tolerated."
Sen. Inhofe mentioned a series of incidents that took place in the last three months.
- March 2, 2011: Two Chinese maritime patrol vessels threaten to ram a Philippine government energy research vessel conducting a seismic survey in the Reed Bank area near Palawan Island.
- May 2011: China announces a unilateral fishing ban for the northern part of the South China Sea from May to August.
- May 2011: Vietnam alleges that Chinese naval vessels fired on four Vietnamese fishing vessels near East London Reef and Cross Island.
- May 2011: Chinese vessels lay steel posts and a buoy in the Amy Douglas Bank, southwest of Reed Bank, within the Philippines' exclusive economic zones.
- May 11, 2011: Two unidentified fighter jets, alleged to be Chinese, are sighted near Palawan.
- May 26, 2011: A maritime security vessel from China cuts the towed survey cables of an exploration ship from Vietnam, the BINH MINH, in the South China Sea in waters near Cam Ranh Bay. This use of force occurred within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam, in an area recognized by international law as its Exclusive Economic Zone.
- June 9, 2011: Three vessels from China, including one fishing vessel and two maritime security vessels, ran into and disabled the cables of another exploration ship from Vietnam, the Viking 2. The incident also occurred within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone.
Tensions in the South China Sea are not new. In 1974, the Chinese seized the nearby Paracels islands from Vietnam, an endeavor that included the use of amphibious forces, jets and ship-on-ship battles. Then, in 1988, China and Vietnam fought a battle near the Spratly reefs, resulting in the deaths of more than seventy Vietnamese sailors. Although recently, the gravity of the incidents did not reach the levels of the past, Beijing's state media made quite clear that failure to reach a peaceful solution to the disputed claims, which center on the Spratly island chain, will prompt Beijing to use maritime police and naval forces, if necessary, to protect Chinese claims.
In response to China's threats, the U.S. pledged to shoulder Manila, in the framework of the Mutual Defense Treaty, should China take military action against this country. In the meantime, Voice of America reported that the U.S. State Department appealed for restraint by all parties to the South China Sea territorial dispute.
The Eurasia Review analyzed, from the time the U.S. entered into Iraq and Afghan wars, China had a "free ride" in Asia.
"Without an American cover, the smaller neighbors of China had no option but to succumb to China's comprehensive might. America had retracted from the Asia-Pacific region," the Eurasia Review wrote, "and China's assertiveness emerged from the following:
"U.S. withdrawal from this region; the 2008 global economic meltdown which convinced China that U.S. power was in decline and China was rising to replace it – something demonstrated with impunity; Japan was a collapsing power center in Asia, and the European Union could be bullied into submission on trade issues; and China's military power demonstrations in 2008 and 2009 convinced it that it was impregnable and could deny area access to the U.S. Navy in its maritime environment especially around Taiwan."
The way China handles the Spratly issue also indicates how it will handle other territorial disputes. Indian officials are, for instance, closely watching the developments in the South China Sea. China and India fought a bitter border war in 1962 and are in talks to resolve the issue. Concerns, however, were raised by Japan. The Japanese paper, Mainichi Shimbun, wrote, "the current tension brings to mind the friction between Japan and China last autumn over territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands [a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea]. It is clear that China has adopted an expansionist policy in both the East and South China seas.
The U.S. should take a sterner stance against China's hawks, putting Beijing on notice that provocative actions will only result in drawing the U.S. to take a stronger position in the conflict.
As reported by Mainichi Shimbun, the first consultations between the U.S. and China on Asia-Pacific affairs were conducted on June 25, between Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Cui Tiankai, China's vice foreign minister. The consultations, though, ended without agreement.