The United States military launched nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers over the heavily disputed South China Sea last week, where they “conducted routine training”. In these contested waters, the Chinese government has claimed ownership over reserves containing trillions of dollars worth of oil and gas.
The South China Sea is one of the most heavily trafficked maritime routes in the entire world. However, the conditions that make it so valuable--its location on the coasts of a considerable number of Asian countries--have also led to major regional tensions over ownership. Vast, overlapping swaths of this valuable body of water are currently being claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China, which has staked the largest claims to the South China Sea and has been the most aggressive in its position with an ever-expanding military presence on the waters, has stirred up a large amount of political discontent in the region.
While China has been bolstering its military presence in and around the South China Sea, its positioning doesn’t come close to competing with the vast military presence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, where the Pentagon already holds an estimated and unrivalled 279 bases. The U.S. hasn’t been keeping idly by, either. This latest B-52 flyover is just one more military exercise of many, all of which are in open defiance of Chinese policy and warnings to the international community.
In a statement to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, a spokesperson for the Pacific Air Force said that "two B-52H Stratofortress bombers took off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and conducted routine training in the vicinity of the South China Sea on March 13, before returning to base." In the same statement the spokesperson added that the launch was nothing out of the ordinary and that, "U.S. aircraft regularly operate in the South China Sea in support of allies, partners and a free and open Indo-Pacific." Concurrently with the flyover of the B-52s on Wednesday, the Seventh Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge amphibious command ship sailed directly through the South China Sea’s contested waters before anchoring in the Philippines. Related: Trump’s Last Chance To Subdue Gasoline Prices
This display of U.S. military might came just one day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decried Beijing for what he said was "illegal island-building in international waterways" with the purpose of cutting off rival claimants to the South China Sea "from accessing more than $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves." In response to these comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang shot back on Wednesday that "it serves the interests of regional countries that those countries can manage and handle differences in their own way, and jointly uphold regional peace, stability, development and prosperity," adding an additional jab that "Meanwhile, some non-regional country has repeatedly stirred up troubles in an attempt to ruin the harmony. Such attempts are irresponsible to regional countries."
The military exercise came also just about a week after a separate pair of U.S. B-52s flew over South China Sea islands claimed by China as a part of the COPE North 2019 exercise. COPE is a “long-standing exercise...designed to enhance multilateral air operations among the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) and Royal Australian air force (RAAF).”
When it comes to the South China Sea, the one thing that the U.S. and the Chinese definitely agree upon is its massive geopolitical value. According to a February 2013 report by the U.S. Environmental Information Agency, "the South China Sea contains approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves." Meanwhile, according to the same 2013 report, the official Chinese National Offshore Oil Company "estimated the area holds around 125 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in undiscovered resources." With these numbers, it’s safe to say that the South China Sea won’t be fading from the headlines any time soon.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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In so doing, China is following the mantras of Deng Xiaoping the inspirational architect of contemporary China and one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. His mantras about the peaceful rise of China are:
“China should observe developments soberly, maintain our position, meet challenges calmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership. China should not attempt to be a hegemon, it should never practice power politics and it should never pose a threat to its neighbours or to world peace”.
This confirms what I have always maintained that the US imposition of tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese exports to the United States had far less to do with the huge trade surplus between the two countries and China’s trade practices and far more to with the launching of the petro-yuan and the challenge that China poses to the US. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a great power will never voluntarily surrender pride of place to a challenger. The United States is the pre-eminent great power. China is now its challenger.
And while the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea, China has no intention of closing vital sea lanes through which an estimated $3.4 trillion worth of goods traverse the South China Sea each year, including crude oil and LNG shipments to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - all heavily dependent on hydrocarbon imports to keep their economies thriving. China itself is dependent on these lanes for its growing crude oil and LNG imports and also for its growing international trade.
Other than the vital sea lanes, the waters around the disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea may have sizeable hydrocarbon reserves. Estimates vary from the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) 28 billion barrels (bb) of oil and 266 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas to China National Offshore Oil Company’s (CNOOC) of around 125 bb of oil and 500 tcf of gas.
In a way, China’s aspirations as a superpower are no different from the aspirations of the indispensable superpower. The US brandishes its authority around the world through its sanctions and tariffs and military interventions in other countries and waging wars for oil as with 2003 invasion of Iraq. China is doing the same in its area of influence.
In the final analysis, China will probably prevail and the South China Sea will become a Chinese lake.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
In reality, says defense analyst Michael Thim, ”The PLAN [China’s Navy] had sufficient capabilities in place in 1996 such that sending Carrier Strike Groups into the Taiwan Strait would be suicidal. The situation has only become more challenging for the US Navy in recent years, not because the PLAN has acquired an aircraft carrier of its own, but because China has greatly enhanced and modernized its existing anti-access/area-denial capabilities.”
As of 2018, the U.S. Navy deploys 280 vessels worldwide, 60–70 of which are assigned to the 7th Fleet, whose mission is the projection of U.S. power to the Indo-Pacific region.
The PLAN has about 280 deployable battle force ships plus another 200 or more missile and gunboats and 230 support vessels available to defend the approaches to the Chinese coast in support of what Americans term its ”anti-access, area-denial” (A2/AD) strategy. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence forecasts that the PLAN will have 313 – 342 warships next year. (It currently has 15 destroyers (!) under construction).
The Pentagon’s think tank, the Rand Corporation, warned in 2015 that China could hold the US Navy’s surface fleet at risk a thousand miles from its coast and in 2018 Adm. Philip Davidson, Chief of the US Navy’s IndoPacific Command, told the Senate, ”There is no guarantee that the United States would win a future conflict with China.” The US Navy says the PLAN will deploy 342 warships by 2021, more than the Navy itself can support in the area and, if military spending continues to track economic growth, China will dominate the Pacific by 2028 and, thanks to novel, cost-effective repurposing of existing assets.
"For the power of the nation-state by no means consists only in its armed forces, but also in its economic and technological resources; in the dexterity, foresight and resolution with which its foreign policy is conducted; in the efficiency of its social and political organization. It consists most of all in the nation itself, the people, their skills, energy, ambition, discipline, initiative, beliefs, myths and illusions. And it consists, further, in the way all these factors are related to one another. Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall".
 Power in International Politics. Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall. International Organization, Vol. 59, No. 1
 The New York Times, August, 2018
 Chinese Naval Expansion Hits High Gear: China’s Navy Acquires 15 Warships in 7 Months