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Is War in the South China Sea Inevitable?

By John Daly | Mon, 12 December 2011 14:07 | 0

If China is not actually preparing for conflict in the South China Sea over disputed archipelagos and islets and their rich offshore resources, from fish to hydrocarbons, then consider the comments made on 6 December by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Central Military Commission, as reported by Xinhua. Hu said that China's navy should "make extended preparations for warfare," adding that the navy should "accelerate its transformation and modernization in a sturdy way, and make extended preparations for military combat in order to make greater contributions to safeguard national security. Our work must closely encircle the main theme of national defense and military building."

Is Beijing’s big nautical stick about to be deployed against other Southeast Asian nations contesting China’s South Sea sovereignty claims?

At issue are the Spratly islands’ 750 islands, islets, atolls and cays, which China, along with the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, are claimed by all. While there are no native Spratly islanders, about 45 archipelago’s islands are now occupied by Vietnamese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and Filipino forces, hardly a recipe for concord.

Whatever China’s intentions, what is beyond doubt is the exponential growth of the Chinese navy, which can now field 66 submarines, an undersea arsenal the Chinese government is intending to increase to 78 by 2020 as planned, putting it roughly equivalent to the U.S. Navy's submarine forces in numbers, if not in quality. Furthermore, China's defense budget is growing nearly 10 percent annually and China's first aircraft carrier, a renovated Soviet vessel, has begun its second set of sea trials from its Yellow Sea port in Dalian in northeastern China. The 990-foot-long former Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier, originally called the Varyag and now apparently renamed the Shi Lang, was completely overhauled and is currently based in China’s northeast Dalian port. It is perhaps not coincidental that "Shi Lang" was a famous 17th century Chinese admiral who conquered Taiwan.

China is applying some not so subtle gunboat diplomacy to advertise its new maritime capabilities. Last month a delegation composed of 42 military attaches from 37 countries including the United States, Canada, Britain and Germany make a two-day-long goodwill visit to the North China Sea Fleet of the Navy of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, visiting a ship-borne aircraft regiment of the aviation force under the North China Sea Fleet.

Their Chinese hosts demonstrated a number of capabilities, including platform-based flying and overland rescue. Lest the attaches be in any doubt about the Chinese Navy’s new capabilities, they also visited the Shenyang guided-missile destroyer.

But at least one contestant in the South China Sea is rising to the challenge. Later this month the Philippine Navy will deploy its biggest and most modern warship, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, to the South China Sea, which Manila labels the West Philippine Sea.

Regional diplomats are still trying to defuse the situation. Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said that the Bali Concord III, signed last month, could serve as a guide for East Asian countries in dealing with the dynamic situation in the South China Sea, commenting, “We are aware of the dynamic situation in the South China Sea. However, we must remember that now we have the Bali Concord III that was signed by the heads of state/government during the East Asia Summit last November 19.”

Washington’s take on the squabble? Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "They (China) have a right to develop military capabilities and to plan, just as we do."

Translation for Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Bandar Seri Begawan – you’re on your own. It’s worth remembering that the People’s Republic of China fought two brief but savage border wars with both India (1962) and Vietnam (1979.)

For those with a sense of history, today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred prior to a declaration of war. For those with a greater sense of history, Dalian is close to the Chinese port of Lushunkou. Previously known as Port Arthur, it was the major base of the Russian Navy Pacific Fleet and attacked on 8 February 1904 by the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Without a formal declaration of war.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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