South China Sea: The zero-sum game

By S K Chatterji
February 27, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)

The Chinese have shown far greater alacrity in resolving disputes over land boundaries with neighbours than in drawing lines across international waters that they claim. A nation with land borders with 14 countries has settled its disputes with 10 of them, but finds it difficult to resolve its problems in the South China Sea.

China’s claim lines envelop almost the entire sea. China and Vietnam already fought over the South China Sea in 1974 and 1988, and the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia are also vocal about what they say are Chinese transgressions into their waters.

The South China Sea is enviable maritime real estate. Through it run sea lanes that provide passage for more than half the world’s oil tanker traffic. Its hydrocarbon and mineral resources reportedly are substantial. Fishing rights also are essential for every country in the region.

The countries that dispute China’s claims are not on a par with Beijing’s military might and some of them are looking to the United States for help — including the Philippines and Vietnam. Notwithstanding Chinese pressures that kept the last ASEAN summit from issuing a joint communiqué, most ASEAN countries, barring Cambodia and Laos, lean more toward the United States.

India, Japan and the United States are now taking a closer look. Some ASEAN nations, especially Vietnam and Philippines have urged India to show greater interest in the area. Joint exploration activities with non-regional partners could prompt more regional intervention.

China has significant business interests with its South China Sea contestants. It is the kind of case in which the rational needs of business should help fix political boundary disputes, but that has not happened in this case. Meanwhile, the ASEAN nations have not been able to take a common stance, primarily because they fear economic distress should China penalise them economically.

Such measures could be varied. Chinese economic tools could attempt to instigate citizens of the targeted country against their own governments, thus creating domestic political pressure. China has also invested heavily in these countries and they could experience deceleration should the Chinese reduce investments.

However, it would not be prudent to give undue weightage to possible arm-twisting by China. Chinese economic relations are bilateral, and retaliations, especially if these are coordinated, would cause them concern.
India’s shores don’t touch the South China Sea, but it must pay attention to how the problem works itself out. China occupies 30,000 square kilometres of land in Aksai Chin that India considers its own. China also claims almost the entirety of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s extreme northeast. A China sea victory would embolden Beijing along the India-Tibet border.

Notwithstanding the stated neutrality of the Americans, there is reason for concern that should the South China Sea start to simmer, it would be difficult for the situation to remain a regional confrontation. Of course, the nations involved in the South China Sea imbroglio have responsible governments, and hopefully, the new Chinese leadership will also prove its dexterity more in diplomacy rather than coercion.

The sea lanes must remain open for global shipping, irrespective of national interests. Natural resources must remain open to more than one nation. To allow a different outcome will muddy the waters not just of southeast Asia but also those of the Himalayan lakes and glaciers. That would be a result that would satisfy no one.

One comment

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Critically more important than just reasoning with China, is to upgrade military preparedness by all neighbors. That appears to be the language that China prefers and that maybe the long-term mechanism for peaceful Asia. India must take the leading role in the coordinated diplomatic and armed escalation. The cost of engaging China now will out-weight the false hope that China, somehow can internally reflect and change to be a responsible member of civilized community.

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