String of pearls: Rising tensions in the South and East China Seas

The United States and its allies took a new step towards a dangerous showdown with China rejecting its “maritime empire” behaviour, as well as its alleged attempts “to alter the status quo” in the South China Sea and the East China Sea

String of pearls: Rising tensions in the South and East China Seas
An aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea - Photo: Ritchie B. Tongo/AP
English 17/07/2020 17:54 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 10:13

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The United States and its allies took a new step towards a dangerous showdown with China this week, rejecting its “maritime empire” behaviour, as well as its alleged attempts “to alter the status quo” in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

The last days have been useful to illustrate the multi pronged strategy developed by Washington in order to “contain” China’s rise as the new hegemonic superpower.

It all started with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on Monday, declaring as “completely unlawful” Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea.

Following an earlier U.S. note verbale to United Nations members in June, Pompeo ratified the policy of confrontation chosen by the Trump administration, supporting the claims of other regional countries over the rich energy and fishery resources of the South China Sea basin and beyond.

Based on the 2016 ruling of an international court, Pompeo stressed that the Mischief Reef, currently occupied by China, and Second Thomas Shoal—occupied by the Philippines—“fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign rights and jurisdiction.” He also reaffirmed Manila’s claim over the Scarborough Shoal, which has been under Chinese control since a 2012 naval standoff.

In his statement coinciding with the fourth anniversary of the ruling, he detailed that the U.S. rejects any Chinese claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals and James Shoal (off Malaysia); waters in Brunei’s Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). In particular, Pompeo challenged Beijing’s “historic rights” claims within Indonesia’s EEZ in the North Natuna Sea.

Pompeo omitted, however, that China did not participate in the 2016 international arbitration tribunal, which invalidated most of its claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead, Beijing has proposed to negotiate directly with its neighbors, and has criticized the U.S. for not signing up to the UN convention.

China has also proposed the negotiation of a Code of Conduct to solve boundary disputes that would be signed in the framework of the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade bloc encompassing the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

To understand the importance of the U.S. statement, it is necessary to consider that the South China Sea lies at the heart of the world’s faster economic growth region.

Nearly USD $3 trillion of trade passes through the waterway each year and it is the home of vital shipping lanes, including the Strait of Malacca, an 890 kilometer stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

According to Western military studies, the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Lombok connecting the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali to the Indian Ocean are key “choke points” for disrupting China’s sea lanes of trade and oil imports, which extends from Shanghai and Hong Kong to the Middle East and Africa circumventing India.

Belt and Road Initiative
In other words, China’s Maritime Silk Road, part of its giant Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for commerce and investments across the Eurasian landmass, depends on the control of the South China Sea.

Back in 2005, a U.S. Department of Defense report, Energy Futures in Asia, alluded to the “string of pearls” as the network of Chinese commercial and military facilities along its sea lines of communications.

At the center of the crucial “pearls” mentioned by Pompeo lies the Spratly Islands off the coast of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In the archipelago composed of 45 islands, cays, and reefs spreading over 425,000 square kilometres partly occupied by Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, China has built in the last six years runways, hangars, naval berths, missile silos, and radar stations.

After a deadly naval clash with the Vietnamese Navy in 1988, Beijing reinforced its positions in Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef. The U.S. Congress reported four years ago that China built between 2013 and 2015 artificial islands with a total area of 1,214 hectares on the seven coral reefs it occupies in the Spratly Islands.

The area has been the frequent scenario of the U.S. Navy “freedom of navigation” operations. The last one took place barely two weeks ago, when the Pentagon deployed for the first time in six years two aircraft carrier task forces. In this vein, according to The Times, the United Kingdom is planning to base one of its new carriers in the Indo-Pacific region, to help in “countering an increasingly assertive China.”

Obviously, this move cannot be disassociated from Tuesday’s announcement that the UK telecom networks would not be allowed to buy new Huawei 5G from 2021, while all such equipment should be stripped out of mobile networks by 2027.

Nor can it be disassociated from the direct funding to the self-proclaimed Tibetan government in exile based in India by the U.S. Agency for International Development, for the first time since it was created in 1959.

The allied multidimensional strategy is clear regarding India, not only due to the geopolitical implications of the “string of pearls,” yet also due to the recent border clashes between Indian and Chinese troops.

High on the Himalayas, yet another choke point of the BRI, Washington is fostering a Muslim rebellion against Beijing in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. No matter that extremist Uighurs joined the Islamic State, much less that they have been killing other Muslims and Christians in Syria; Chen Quanguo, China’s “mastermind” of repression in Xinjiang, was sanctioned last week.

For the moment, China’s reaction has been limited to the diplomatic arena. Beijing slapped sanctions against warmongering lawmakers Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Chris Smith, as well as Sam Brownback, “ambassador for religious freedoms.” Lockheed Martin, the main contractor of the latest US arms sales to Taiwan, was also targeted with sanctions.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian urged the U.S. “to stop creating troubles on the South China Sea issues. China will continue to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and security in accordance with the law.”

Nevertheless, the pincer movement in the allied grand strategy was completed on Tuesday. Japan’s Ministry of Defense released its annual white paper, accusing Beijing of “relentlessly” pushing its way toward the Senkaku Islands on the East China Sea, saying it was becoming “a matter of grave concern” along with North Korea’s modernization of its ballistic missile arsenal.

Much as the territorial dispute surrounding the South China Sea, the conflict over the Senkaku Islands (known in China as Diaoyu) is a legacy of the postwar order.

During the 19th century Tokyo annexed the uninhabited islets, which were occupied by the U.S. in 1945. After a UN commission found possible hydrocarbon reserves in the area, Washington approved the devolution of the islands to Japan, sparking opposition from China and Taiwan.

The relation between China and Japan deteriorated to its worst point in decades, after Tokyo purchased part of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner in 2012. The following year, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. rejected Beijing’s decision to establish an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large area of the East China Sea covering the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The ADIZ is a security mechanism used by several countries including Japan, India, the U.S., and Russia intended to require all civilian aircraft to report their presence and flight plans to other nation’s authorities; Beijing has claimed its right to establish one in the South China Sea.

In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the allies’ response was challenging the Chinese ADIZ with B-52 bombers and fighter planes overflying the zone without prior notification.

Nowadays, Japanese and Chinese coast guard vessels continue to follow one another around the islands. In June, the Ishigaki Municipal Assembly in Okinawa renamed the administrative area that includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu from Tonoshiro to Tonoshiro Senkaku. It argued that the move is aimed at resolving “administrative confusion” between a locale in Ishigaki, which shares the name Tonoshiro with the islands.

However, Taiwan—who calls the islands Diaoyutai—warned that the move would “not be conducive to regional peace and stability.” An overall stability in the eastern Pacific rim that China probably wants to preserve for the next 10-20 years, in order to strengthen its forces before the decisive showdown.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen