There has been troubling brewing in the South China Sea for quite some time. The difficulties arise around territorial claims of sovereignty centred upon a collection of islands involving claims of various nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan and Taiwan as well as Vietnam.
The claimant nations have an acute stake in gaining control over sections of the South China Sea and the islands, reefs and banks contained therein. The South China Sea is rich in natural resources such as oil and gas as well as witnessing a large proportion of the world's shipping passing through its waters amounting to trillions of dollars worth of trade. Thus it is an area of geopolitical strategic significance.
The claims and counter claims of the Asian parties to particular islands such as the Spratly and Paracel islands are complex, multifaceted and ancient. Just as Britain and Argentina dispute who has sovereignty over the Falklands Islands or Malvinas in the South Atlantic, so too do various countries such as China, Taiwan and the Philippines regarding territorial control of the Pratas islands. Malaysia and Indonesia also have claims regarding these islands as well.
Due to the geostrategic significance of the area, outside parties, especially the United States, have asserted an interest in matters such as «freedom of navigation» and «freedom of overflight». American administrations also claim that since they consider the United States a Pacific Power they have a stake in peaceful resolution of the disputes. However, in some ways this position on the part of the United States Government is somewhat disingenuous and counterproductive. Rather than acting as a stabilising force in the South China Sea the pronouncements of various American politicians and the diplomatic-defence posture, which has been adopted has aggravated what was already a tense and delicate situation. Indeed the Obama administration has been quite content to stoke tensions and rivalries and manipulate the ancient disputes and rivalries to fashion an anti-China alliance of Asian-Pacific powers in a bid to isolate Beijing regionally and contain it from gaining hegemony over the South China Sea.
Strangely, the United States makes a great issue out of «freedom of navigation» and «freedom of overflight» yet there has never been any disruption to international shipping or passage of aircraft or maritime vessels in the South China Sea. Washington criticises the Chinese Government for massive land reclamation activities on disputed islands, which China claims within its territorial sphere of influence. However, as John Pilger's excellent documentary makes clear it is in fact China which is at a significant strategic disadvantage in its own neighbourhood when one takes account of the multiple American military bases stationed in the Asia-Pacific and the regular naval exercises the US carries out in the region in concert with Asian allies.
Indeed, the string of American military bases encircling China and the presence of American military assets in the region could constitute a strategic «noose» for use to contain China and keep the United States power projection position pre-eminent throughout the Asia-Pacific. A lot of the rhetoric stemming from the American foreign policy establishment and the President-elect himself has attempted to caricature Chinese activities with its land reclamation activities as a threat to the peace and stability of the region. However, China has shown a willingness to resolve the maritime disputes peacefully through bilateral diplomacy such as in striking a compromise with the Philippines after the UN Court of Arbitration ruling on the Law of the Seas went against the PRC last summer. China moreover would never do anything to undermine the security and stability of international commerce in the South China Sea as a great deal of its own economy depends on the smooth and efficient flow of trade through the waters of this sea.
If anything, the movements of China regarding the islands in the South China Sea could be seen as defensive in nature due to the Obama administration's Pivot to Asia and the rising militarism evident in Japanese strategic thinking and posture. Thus, rather than continuing to escalate the situation in the South China Sea and whipping up anti-China sentiment, the United States should recognise that whatever is brewing in the South China Sea is not a threat to international peace and stability. Just as the closest ally of the United States, the United Kingdom, has been embroiled in island disputes such as the Falklands or Gibraltar, so too must the United States not up the ante over such Asian disputes and instead follow multilateral diplomacy to defuse the tensions rather than inflate them for Superpower politics purposes.