What is happening in the South China Sea?


 President Obama’s now oft-derided 2011 ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific was, at the time, a strong signal to China that America would not stand for its increasingly assertive behavior in the region. Obama was also hopelessly optimistic over the chances of American withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan, which would enable a refocusing of American attention on the Asia-Pacific region.


Following extrication from its Middle Eastern quagmire, the pivot (as the rebalance was initially known) would reflect a hugely significant- though mainly symbolic- shift in US foreign policy, or so Obama hoped. Instead, despite Obama’s best intentions, the much-heralded pivot has been derailed by continued American involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan and the rise of the so-called Islamic State.


American eyes remain transfixed on its ever-deepening Middle Eastern travails, yet with China’s maritime assertiveness showing few signs of abating, recent months have seen a renewed US focus on the geopolitical pressure point that is the South China Sea. Clashes continue to mushroom between an assortment of regional actors pertaining to numerous disputed island chains within the regionThe Sino-Japanese dimension to the conflict continues to simmer and remains a conflict of significance in the context of the South China Sea.


Thus, traditional and non-traditional US allies alike, are now looking to the globe’s most dominant military power for increased physical support in the region’s fight against an increasingly aggressive China.


The nature of the conflict


The South China Sea conflict centres on disputed territory and the subsequent battle for sovereignty over particular ocean areas. Two island chains- the Paracels and the Spratlys- are also the cause of great consternation within the region. Both are ‘rumored’ to have an abundance of natural resources and both sit on important shipping routes, pivotal to the economies of the involved nations.


number of regional states have vigorously invoked claims to both sets of islands. China has posited an historical claim to both the Paracel and Spratly island chains, both regarded as ‘integral parts of the Chinese nation’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349). Vietnam refutes the Chinese version of events, claiming that Vietnam has ‘actively’ ruled the two island chains since as far back as the 17th-century. The Philippines too, has laid a claim to both sets of islands, using its proximity to the islands as the basis for its claim. The Philippines has in fact ‘borne the brunt’ (https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/great-power-politics-south-china-sea) of most of China’s expansionist tendencies in the region. The Philippines and China have also clashed over the Scarborough Shoal. Malaysia has a lesser claim too, to a number of islands in the Spratlys.





The Sino-Japanese dimension


As the regional economic powerhouses, Japan and China’s relationship carries added weight. A relationship littered with conflict, Sino-Japanese competition remains rife. China continues to be plagued by fears of a Japanese return to its pre-WWII militarism. Japan is now clearly on its way to a process of both regional and global reassertion, as Prime Minister Abe’s September reinterpretation of ‘Article 9’ specifically indicates. Article 9 was instituted within Japan’s post-WWII constitution and pledged that ‘land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained by Japan.’ The Japanese Self-Defense Forces existed solely to protect the ‘homeland.’ Abe’s reinterpretation allows instead for collective self-defense, a definite projection of Japanese power away from its borders.


Japan’s recent behavior worries China, with Beijing uncertain over Japan’s intentions regarding the South China Sea. Yet in recent months, the Japanese strategy has begun to become more focused. Most significantly, Japan has already agreed with its great ally, the United States, to hold joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea in 2016. Tokyo has also begun to work with the Philippines on matters pertaining to the dispute. Japanese concerns are focused ostensibly on the topic of natural resources. Japan imports over 90% of its energy requirements and thus for Japan to function, it needs the South China Sea to be cleared of potentially dangerous disputes.

The chances of a proxy Sino-US conflict in the region are therefore growing as both sides play the geopolitical version of the game, chicken.


What does the future hold?


Predicting future geopolitical trends is always a dastardly game. Just ask those practitioners of IR who posited the intractability of the Cold War. Thus, musings over an imminent Sino-US conflict over the South China Sea will remain on very shaky ground. Yet statesmen, academics et al can proffer theories as to what may happen. One such theory- regarding the South China Sea- exposits the virtues of Stephen Walt’s ‘balance of threat’ theory, and is buttressed by a recent geopolitical event.


In a March 2014 speech to the Russian Duma, President Putin argued that‘if you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.’By this, Putin is referring to the Russian annexation of the Crimea last year. Russia viewed Western expansionism- both political and military- as severe threats to Russia’s national security. Walt would explain Russia’s ensuing invasion of the Crimea as a result of the threat posed by the monolithic West. For Putin, he spied offensive intentions, as well as a significant build up of western military capabilities, right up to its border. This dictated a Russian reaction to balance against the growing threat from the west.


Harking back to China, one could potentially see a similar scenario (though it is by no means the most likely scenario). As the US bolsters its allies’ military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region, China’s historic insecurities and current threat reception will be piqued to a significant extent. A proxy Sino-US conflict may follow, or even more dangerous, a direct Sino-US confrontation.