There is a lot of feverish flag waving and sabre rattling by rival local nations and by the world’s hegemon, the United States, about the islands that China has created and built airstrips on and dredged safe anchorages for.
But there are other ways to visualise the outcome of resistance to China’s false claims in the South China Sea and its militarised island building.
A recent briefing at Washington Dc’s National press Club focused on the latest developments on this and possible implications down the road. Dr. Yann-huei Song (Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Research Fellow.
Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica; and Adjunct Professor, Soochow University School of Law, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China) points out that China’s denial to the recent case brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration claiming China is in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is irrelevant, since the Philippines (claimant) and China are both parties to it.
This is a complex case that could have unexpected consequences globally. UNCLOS will be looking at China’s settling on islands, rocks, low tide elevations or submerged banks (each carry different rights under the law). The UNCLOS Treaty may not survive this dispute, at least in its present form.
The United States, while supporting broad parts of the law, is not a party and is approaching this critical dispute as a general freedom of the seas issue and has challenged China’s magical territorial claims by sending Naval excursions through “open ocean” areas that “violate” the Chinese claims. Many see this delicate situation leading inevitably to some sort of armed conflict in the near future what with jockeying and maneuvering of missiles, aircraft carriers, destroyers and rapidly developing facilities on newborn islands.
China’s strategy is however, a long-range one. Its deployment of a “facts on the ground” strategy could trump any legal niceties the UNCLOS hearings produce. In turn, the US cannot, WILL not accept any throttling of free passage through the South China Sea. Yet armed conflict, at least open warfare, may not be the end game here. What is the alternative?
For the US, one unsettling fact is that a mere 2% of the trillions of maritime traffic the US depends on is carried in US-flagged vessels. In a maritime standoff, China could flex its leverage by strangling marine traffic through the South China Sea area. This COULD be accomplished militarily but much more likely by threatening global shipping by exercising shipping stoppages and bureaucratic barriers among marine trading nations in the SE Asia region and affecting the entire global economic system.
We can see a small version of this in the ongoing dispute over Taiwan’s loosening of restrictions for the pasting of stickers on passports that alter the country from “Republic of China” to “Republic of Taiwan” in August 2015. In reaction,
Chinese editorials have stated this is a laughable move and published statements such as: “As long as the mainland is willing, it is not hard to stonewall those with the ‘sticker passports’ at immigration control points everywhere in the world.”
Clearly, China’s heft in the global economic picture is fuelling hubris. The threat to the US maritime supply chain is apparent.
Gregory Poling (Center for Strategic and International Studies) made it clear that the US will cannot “walk away” from these threats and is building up military capacity to protect its freedom in international waters. So what’s down the road? Clearly extreme care is needed to avoid a spark that leads to armed conflict in the near future. The military drum beating will intensify in the coming year between the US and China and neighbouring states. China will deploy more aggressive Coast Guard patrols.
The US will step up its fly overs and warship passages. But there will come a time when China only needs to issue an ultimatum to nations with vital trade links and shipping through the South China Sea that will face the hard choice of re-routing shipping to the US market by long and expensive detours or curtailing shipping to US ports. No real missiles or attacks on shipping needed.
 The US has experience cyclical declines in US-flagged merchant marine and Navy. Preceding the Spanish American War, WWI, and Vietnam the US had to scramble to build and man ships. The 1916 Shipping Act and the Jones Act were enacted to ensure a bare minimum merchant marine capacity was maintained, at least enough to supply the military, but it’s not enough.
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