South China Sea : What comes ahead?

South China Sea Dispute: Mode of Encirclement vs Politics of Leeway

The South China sea and another round of news Source :BBC

Almost weekly, troubling news from the South and East China Sea deluge the channels of national and international news agencies: June 20 – China and Indonesia in maritime clash; June 8 – Pentagon Calls Chinese Intercept of U.S. Spy Plane ‚Unsafe'; June 1 – How to Bridge the Divide Over the South China Sea; May 19 – Pentagon Accuses China of Unsafe Jet Interception in South China Sea… These articles, statements and reports all describe the territorial dispute between China and its neighbors including the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. However, like the headlines above already indicate, there is one player who is not directly a neighbour, yet who is notwithstanding one of the focal figures: The United States.

“All in”

 In 2011, Obama announced the geographically adjustment of US foreign strategy called “Pivot to Asia”. According to this policy realignment, the US attempts to rebalance towards the pacific realm or like Obama puts it: “{…} let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the twenty-first century, the United States of America is all in”. The overall strategy of the US in the pacific is being summarized in three objectives: safeguard the freedom of the seas, deter conflict and coercion and promote adherence to international law and standards. These rather abstract elucidations become more apparent by scrutinizing whats here at stake apart from stability and the support for regional allies like Japan, the Philippines or Australia: economic prosperity.

In addition to the dispute between Japan and China about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and its economic value – described on InPRA here – the main conflict centers on the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The Islands, located in the South China Sea are essential to project power in the region due to its strategical and economic valuable position. The White House estimates that around 5,3 trillion in total trade passes through the South China Sea every year. Additionally, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are slumbering beneath the surface. Due to these possible worthwhile profits, six different countries claim ownership: Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and like stated above China. In order to keep the superior position, China started to develop small islands by piling up sand in the ocean – mainly on the so called Subi Reef and Fiery Cross Reef. Here, satellite imagery indicates the possible construction of military infrastructure, which likely includes helipads, airstrips, piers, and radar and surveillance structures. Chinas power projection thus demands a reaction by the US and the neighboring states.


Normalization with Vietnam


The picture on Instagram and Twitter went viral: Obama sitting together with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on low plastic chairs, drinking beer and noodles in the heart of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. This presumably staged picture can be viewed as part of a new step towards normalization between former adversaries: the president of the United States enjoys bún chả (grilled pork with noodles) jointly with locals in the political power centre of the communist party – an image connoting policy of deténte. Preceding the picture, Obama officially announced the drop of a decades-old embargo. By lifting the post-war arms sales ban, Vietnam and the US retain a more equal position. It is important to note that this process of normalization started sixteen years ago with a visit to Vietnam by former US president Bill Clinton. However, the lifting of the arms embargo is perfectly timed and unlikely just a coincidence. Thus, the trip was likely a signal towards China. Moreover, the speech delivered by Obama to Vietnamese Communist Party Officials had a conspicuous tone: here, Obama said by officially referring to the Vietnam War “big nations should not bully smaller ones”. One cannot dismiss that in the light of the territorial dispute the bully Obama was referring to, is in todays context actually China and the “smaller ones” are the neighboring states. Chinas response following Obamas Vietnam trip was therefore unequivocal by warning the US and Vietnam, they should not spark a “regional tinderbox”.


Mode of encirclement vs politics of leeway


With all these various players in the pacific realm, the described gestures and new alignments – drawing even former adversaries closer together – can be interpreted as a form of saber-rattling. The US is rattling new arms deals with Vietnam and China rattles new military bases by proceeding its island development. China, thereby interprets the US strategy as a mode of encirclement – although the ties between Vietnam and the big ideological brother in the North should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, controlling the South China Sea is a possible breaking out of this mode of encirclement by holding the US and its allies with maritime outposts at a distance. Somehow, one can identify a parallele strategy here, common like Chinas support for North Korea: Kim Jong Un and his terror regime act as a sort of leeway between the US ally South Korea and the Chinese border. With North Korea in place, China has no direct border with a US alley. The territorial dispute can be interpreted with the same logic. By controlling and projecting power in the South China Sea, the Chinese communist party keeps the upper hand and breaks the mode of encirclement. Therefore it is unlikely that China will easily back down, yet the saber-rattling is not only about the economic value – more importantly it is about keeping the leeway to the US and its allies.

Michael Lehmann

Michael Lehmann

Michael Swen Lehmann was born in Germany and lived in Vietnam and Austria. After he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Popular Music and Media Science, he decided to pursue a stronger international focus. In order to do so, he enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies Master at the Universities of Vienna and Leipzig. Since Micha already wrote his Bachelor thesis on blogger-movements in Vietnam, he decided to center his research on non-state actors in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Additional fields of interests comprise conflict transformation and the democratization process in Myanmar. Micha already worked as a Journalist for the German news agency Deutsche-Presse Agentur (dpa) and the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).
Michael Lehmann

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