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Saturday, October 31, 2015


The Great Game revisited

by Tom Sullivan

Taking a break from domestic politics this morning to revisit the South China Sea. Back in June, we looked at the Chinese efforts to turn shoals and reefs in the Spratly Islands into toeholds in the middle of the important sea lane, a sort of Great Wall of Sand. While Americans focused on the stultifying spectacle of the Republican debate this week, on the other side of the planet, geopolitics rolls on. Or maybe, sails on.

American naval exercises near the Spratlys this week prompted a protest from the Chinese:

The USS Lassen guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the land formations claimed by China in the disputed Spratly Islands chain on Tuesday.

The move prompted the Chinese government to summon the US ambassador in Beijing and denounce what it called a threat to its sovereignty.

The US said after Thursday’s talks that the Chinese had expressed no desire to cancel scheduled visits by Chinese ships to a Florida port next week and that an upcoming visit to China by the commander of the US Pacific Command would still take place.

What for the US are "routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law", are for the Chinese illegal.

Foreign Policy  explained the strategic importance of the South China Sea in 2011:

The South China Sea joins the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific, functioning as the throat of global sea routes. Here is the center of maritime Eurasia, punctuated by the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar. More than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic. The oil transported through the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is more than six times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 17 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. What’s more, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a potentially huge bounty.

States along the margins of the South China Sea have made competing claims for years to islands and archipelagos in the area, with China claiming an area (the "cow’s tongue") that reaches far south of its southernmost province.

  Image: Voice of America

The result is that all nine states that touch the South China Sea are more or less arrayed against China and therefore dependent on the United States for diplomatic and military support. These conflicting claims are likely to become even more acute as Asia’s spiraling energy demands — energy consumption is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half that growth — make the South China Sea the ever more central guarantor of the region’s economic strength. Already, the South China Sea has increasingly become an armed camp, as the claimants build up and modernize their navies, even as the scramble for islands and reefs in recent decades is mostly over. China has so far confiscated 12 geographical features, Taiwan one, Vietnam 25, the Philippines eight, and Malaysia five.

The New York Times Magazine visits "the world’s most surreal fishing camp," the Phillipines' ship Sierra Madre, essentially a derelict WWII tank-landing ship (originally named the U.S.S. Harnett County) that the Philippine government ran aground on the Ayungin shoal in 1999. This rusting outpost houses eight Filipino troops there to maintain their country's toehold on a shoal now guarded by two Chinese Coast Guard vessels.

The Chinese "cabbage strategy" for this and other contested reefs and shoals "entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”

At Ayungin, the Chinese can simply wait:

There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May. General Zhang, in his interview several months ago, listed Ren’ai Shoal (the Chinese name for Ayungin) in the P.L.A.’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea. He had already put it in the win column, even though eight Filipino marines still live there. He also seemed to take some pleasure in the strategy. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: “We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”

The New York Times Magazine piece contains multimedia clips that give sense of the remoteness and loneliness of these geopolitical standoffs on the other side of the world. The Wall Street Journal has this sketch of the dispute:

Watch this space.