(USA/Mar Cinese Meridionale) The Shadow of Washington over the South China Sea (Vladislav Gulevich, Strategic Culture Foundation, 17 febbraio 2013)

17.02.2013 17:51

The South China Sea is turning into an area of continuous territorial disputes. Not long ago, Beijing and Tokyo clarified their position regarding ownership of the Senkaku (Diaoyudao) Islands, and then news agencies followed the twists and turns of the Chinese-Vietnamese diplomatic struggle for the right to own the oil and gas reserves on the nearby continental shelf. Now the Philippines want to have a say…

On 22 January 2013, local authorities informed the Chinese embassy in Manila that an action was soon to be filed with international judiciary authorities regarding the ownership of a number of atolls in the South China Sea which each side believes to be theirs.  

Some of the atolls where the Philippines are against China's presence form part of the Spratly Islands. This tiny archipelago is situated in the southwestern part of the South China Sea and is made up of more than one hundred small reefs with a total area of five kilometres squared as well as the sea territory surrounding them - an object of contention not only between China and the Philippines, but also Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan. The problem is that the sea shelf here is concealing huge reserves of oil and gas.

Manila is demanding that Chinese legislation be brought into line with international legislation, that the People's Republic of China be prohibited from carrying out military-economic activities within 200 miles of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, and that China's claim to part of the atolls in close proximity to the Philippines' coastline - the so-called "nine-dotted line" indicated on Chinese maps - be recognised as inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the UN Convention on Sea Law.

Chinese cartographers mapped out this line, which passes through 11 islands and atolls, back during the time of the Kuomintang in 1947. The "horseshoe" began off the coast of Taiwan, ran along the Philippines' coastline embracing the Paracel and Spratly Islands, turned towards Vietnam's coastline and ended at China's Hainan Island.  In 1948, the authorities of the by then communist China, realising the strategic importance of the issue, did not relinquish their claims to the links of this "horseshoe", but merely reduced their number from eleven to nine.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia all refuse to recognise China's "nine-dotted line". In its turn, Washington has given its support to the "anti-China coalition", declaring that freedom of navigation and open access to the states of the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) are of national interest to the United States and they will demand unobstructed access to all territories and areas of dry land in the South China Sea which Beijing believes to be its own. 

For a long time, Manila quietly observed the actions of the Chinese, but the success of Chinese diplomacy in the APR, where Beijing has managed to build relations with Timur, Myanmar, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, has aroused Philippine politicians. The louder Manila protested, however, the more forcefully China strengthened the occupied territory. Beijing remained deaf to accusations of "creeping expansionism" and marked out yet another reef with buoys, this time just 113 kilometres off the coast of the Philippines. Then bamboo huts began to appear on the reefs and there is reason to believe that there will also be fortified posts. 

Manila resorted to cunning and put forward an initiative to turn the South China Sea into a Zone of Peace, Friendship, Freedom and Collaboration, and called upon the littoral states to set about demilitarising the region, including the Spratly Islands. Only the Vietnamese supported the initiative, suggesting that the others - and this is primarily Washington, which is continuing to build up its military presence in the region - are not interested in demilitarisation as such, but rather militarising themselves to their advantage.

The Philippines are a comparatively small state and would hardly decide to stand alone against such a mighty power as China. However, standing behind the Philippines is America. It would be more beneficial for the Philippines themselves if they cooperated with China, rather than quarrelling with them. Manilla, for example, is concerned with increasing Philippine exports to the Celestial Empire. Now, however, Beijing could simply introduce restrictions on the delivery of goods from the Philippines in retaliation for anti-China initiatives, or limit the flow of Chinese tourists whose visits bring considerable income to the Philippine treasury.   

Conversely, the Americans have no interest in Manilla and Beijing coming closer together. The Philippines and the United States are establishing solid military and political agreements and the Americans are using the territory of the Philippines for joint exercises with the Philippine army, as well as a springboard to Southeast Asia, allowing them to control the water area of the South China Sea. Washington has already promised that if necessary, they would promptly supply both the Philippines and Vietnam with weapons and anything else necessary to stand up to China.  Should Chinese military bases threaten to appear here and there (Timur, Fiji) and should the Pacific states move into deeper military and economic collaboration with Beijing (Papua New Guinea, Indonesia), the ingress of the Philippines into China's orbit would be an irreparable loss for the USA. 

Little by little, America is losing its former influence on Southeast Asia. Even countries being guided by Washington in the face of the "Chinese treat" have given Manila's anti-China initiatives a lukewarm reception. As yet, Singapore has still not given a clear answer as to whether it will be supporting the action being filed by the Philippines government (77% of the population in Singapore is Chinese) and there has been no news of Malaysia's reaction. Vietnam responded evasively, calling for compliance with the law (from 2009 through to 2012 there have been 26 incidents between Hanoi and Manila on the one side and Beijing on the other for which unresolved territorial disputes served as prerequisites). 

Relations between China and the Philippines are a reflection of relations between America and the Philippines. Washington has declared Tibet, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the South China Sea as a zone of its strategic interests. If, with regard to the sea, America still has some kind of justification for its opposition to China's increasing control over the entire water area (in view of the fact that the borders of the littoral zones have still not been fully established), then Tibet and Xinjiang are deep in the continental mass of Eurasia, have clearly defined borders and are an integral part of the People's Republic of China. Peking, meanwhile, understands that if the diplomatic landscape in Southeast Asia changes enough in its favour, it will be possible to successfully stand up to the United States as an equal on many sensitive issues, including Tibet and Xinjiang.