As a major trade route, the South China Sea falls under the protection of international law and law of the sea. For the G7 countries, namely Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, it is of vital strategic interest.
Five trillion dollars worth of goods passes through the South China Sea each year. It is a dynamic waterway for global traffic from traveling west to east and east to west.
China sees the South China Sea as important and necessary to its commercial shipping. Under its seafloor lies an untold wealth of oil and gas, as well as precious minerals.
To stake its claim to sovereignty, China has dusted down maps from the Zhou dynasty as proof of its dominion over the waters. China’s claim has been contested by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Some have maps of their own contesting China’s claim.
The war of maps will resolve little; it is military and economic might that may win the day and China is the strongest in this contest.
In consequence, it is in this context that the G7 leaders are presenting a united front, insisting that Asia’s prosperity is impossible to separate from freedom of navigation and trade in the South China Sea.
President Barack Obama has called for a forceful response to China’s claims, more a result of the fact that China is constructing artificial islands and dredging deeply into the South China Sea. China has also strengthened its military presence there. As such, it is challenging the 12-mile territory limit and engaging in territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.
But this is of lesser importance, as China is perhaps on a crash course with U.S. geopolitical supremacy and goals in the region. It is good to recall Obama’s pivot to East Asia. This significant shift in foreign policy relies on military and economic might to box in China, the United States’ most formidable competitor.
It is in this sense that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a very ambitious free trade plan, hopes to foster stronger economic and military ties with countries that lay claims to the South China Sea. Its very existence hinges on free trade and freedom of the seas, and fits neatly into Obama’s new Asia policy.
China sees this as meddling in its own internal affairs. The United States has sent in warships and planes, all of which China has challenged short of open conflict.
At an international security conference in Singapore, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has proposed to “deepen defense cooperation in the Asia-Pacific by expanding a security network of countries whose militaries train together and eventually operate together.”
In his speech, Carter raised complaints of China’s unnerving neighboring countries by building reefs in the disputed area. Nonetheless he offered China a place at the table, but under U.S. leadership.
Much of the free trade traffic goes to China and Hong Kong. Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam are largely best served ports on the Pacific. That leaves South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies, short on oil and gas, and these two countries are our close allies in Asia. The European countries that are part of G7 depend on China for trade; they have a disadvantage when it comes to the military, relying on the United States’ predominance in Asia.
It is from this geopolitical optic that the United States views China’s claims and ascendency, economically and militarily, as a threat to its preponderant role in the region.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership seeks to strengthen the countries with claims to the South China Sea as a counterweight to China, along with a U.S. armada and economic clout.
A long war of attrition between the United States and China will determine who will prevail in the end. No one wants another war. China will accommodate its ways to reality, but will not give up what it considers its historical rights.
The claimants, despite expressing their anger over the situation, live in China’s shadow and have learned to live with their big neighbor, as any reading of history proves.
But the fly in the ointment is Japan, who is wholly dependent on freedom of the sea and easy access in the South China Sea. The United States will defend it for sure, but Japan has to make adjustments with China, and come to some agreement with China on its nearly two-decade long war against China.
In the end China will shape its behavior to the South China Sea along the lines of territorial adjustments it made with Burma and the Soviet Union.