We Cannot Evade the South China Sea Issue
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 25, 2012
Summary: Recently the Asian-Pacific region has been far from pacific. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has announced that Tokyo intends to purchase the Diaoyutai Islands. The United States has conducted joint military exercises with the Philippines, and joint military exercises with Vietnam. Russia and Mainland China have conducted joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea. The clash between Mainland China and the Philippines over Huangyan Island in the South China Sea has gone on for 14 days.
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Recently the Asian-Pacific region has been far from pacific. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has announced that Tokyo intends to purchase the Diaoyutai Islands. The United States has conducted joint military exercises with the Philippines, and joint military exercises with Vietnam. Russia and Mainland China have conducted joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea. The clash between Mainland China and the Philippines over Huangyan Island in the South China Sea has gone on for 14 days.
Under the circumstances, this may well become the norm, and not the exception. With the rise of Mainland China, the power structure in the Asian-Pacific region has undergone irreversible changes.
Other Asian-Pacific countries are wary about Mainland China's rise. In economics and trade, they may be increasingly dependent upon Mainland China for resources and markets. But when it comes to national security, they fear Mainland Chinese dominance. That is why several nations have welcomed the United States' announcement that it is returning to the Asian-Pacific region.
On the surface, the United States does not oppose Mainland China's rise, Yet it repeatedly stresses that Mainland China must own up to its international responsibilities, and comply with international norms. One of the most sensitive areas is the South China Sea issue.
The United States itself refused to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Yet it supports ASEAN countries expanding their territorial claims based on the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Two years ago, at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued on behalf of Philippines and Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea. The US position has become increasingly clear. She expressed support for these claims through her terminology. She pointedly used the term "Western Philippine Sea," instead of South China Sea. She also donated a decommissioned warship, stationed U.S. troops. and held a joint annual exercise.
The South China Sea is one of the United States' many interests. Mainland China however, considers the South China Sea a core interest. Mainland China cannot help but wonder. Is the US attempting to use these countries in the Asian-Pacific region to bring down Mainland China? With the backing of the United States, the Philippines and Vietnam have become increasingly aggressive. They have announced the development of tourist routes and international competitive bidding for the exploitation of oil and gas in the South China Sea.
The current confrontation in the South China Sea between Mainland China and the Philippines is over Huangyan Island. Twelve fishing boats from the Mainland were operating in a Huangyan Island lagoon. Philippine warships first attempted to seize the fishing vessels. They then attempted to bottle the fishing vessels up in the lagoon, As a result, two Mainland ocean surveillance ships rushed to the scene to intervene. The result was a confrontation between the two sides at sea.
Militarily the Philippines is the weakest of the ASEAN countries, The reason it behaved so brashly, was the joint US-Philippine military exercises held on the 16th, code named "Balikatan" (shoulder to shoulder). The U.S. military stressed that this was just a routine disaster relief exercise, not directed against any particular party, But the scale was unprecedented. The exercises took place in Palawan waters, near the South China Sea. Drills included "attacks against offshore drilling platforms and a joint US-Philippine military force regaining control." These may have misled leaders in Manila and encouraged them to precipitate a confrontation with Beijing.
This forced Mainland China to adopt a less ambiguous attitude and to take more forceful action. In recent years, Beijing has placed increased importance on its core interests. PLA military spending has increased. Aircraft carriers have been incorporated into its military in order to defend its core interests. The People's Liberation Army aggressively mobilized. It got tough with the Philippines. The Mainland's most advanced armed fisheries ship arrived at Huangyan Island, Nuclear submarines were deployed, and proceeded to the disputed waters. When Defense Minister Liang Xian-lie inspected the Guangzhou Military Region, he said, "The Guangzhou Military Region will be in the vanguard in the event of a major assignment."
More recently tensions have eased. On the 22nd, the two Mainland ships left Huangyan Island in the South China Sea. Only one ocean surveillance ship remains in the waters to enforce the law. The Mainland Ambassador in Manila said the Mainland is reducing tensions on Huangyan Island. He said it is clearly willing to resolve the incident through amicable diplomatic means.
Officials hope to reduce tensions. But the Mainland public is willing to fight to protect the nation's sovereignty in the South China Sea. The issue is particularly sensitive on the eve of the Chinese Communist Party's 18th Party Congress, Power struggles could play a role. That means Beijing might attempt to teach the Philippines a lesson. But even if a new leader takes over, the South China Sea issue will remain difficult to resolve. It can only become increasingly intractable.
In the East China Sea, the Diaoyutai Islands dispute has turned Japan and Mainland China inside out. The imaginary enemy in annual US-Japan security treaty exercises is no longer an amphibious landing with tanks from the north (Russia), It is an enemy occupying outlying islands (Mainland China). Extreme right-wing politician Shintaro Ishihara is stirring the pot. He said "If Tokyo does not open fire, the country will not face up to and deal with this problem." He has made the situation even more complicated.
On the 23rd Mainland China and Russia held joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, on an unprecedented scale. The theme of the exercise was "joint maritime defense and the defense of sea lanes." On the 21st, the Russian fleet sailed south through the Sea of Japan. It did not bypass the Japanese archipelago. This too was seen as a show of strength toward the US and Japan.
Consider the Asian-Pacific strategic scenario. The US and Mainland China are the two major powers. The other countries are reluctant to choose sides. By siding with the US against Mainland China, some countries have received increased U.S. military support. But they are reluctant to give up their seat on China's economic bandwagon.
The Republic of China is an Asian-Pacific government, It has relations with the Mainland. The two sides have a special relationship. It also has relations with the entire region, The United States is returning to Asia. That too is a problem we must face.
The Republic of China government has a stake in the South China Sea sovereignty dispute. It occupies the largest island -- Nansha Taiping Island. In March, armed Vietnamese ships approached Nansha Taiping Island, twice. They even fired shots in provocation, Our own Coast Guard station personnel fired warning shots in response. Our government lodged a protest through channels. The Vietnam claimed its ships were merely conducting routine patrols.
Both Taiping Island and Diaoyutai are Republic of China territory, It is not often that there is consensus between the ruling and opposition parties. Hundreds of Blue vs. Green issues are side issues. The government has a good chance to reach a clear consensus. More importantly, it has a chance to develop a set of specific strategies. Whether we are dealing with the Mainland, the United States, or with our Asian-Pacific neighbors. we should do so thoroughly and smoothly, without sacrificing our national interests.
We sit at home. But the controversy has come knocking on our door. We cannot evade the South China Sea issue.