Where lies the greatest potential for disaster in this ever more disordered world? In Russia’s efforts to rebuild its former empire? In the chaos of the Middle East, or the chronic instability of a nuclear-armed Pakistan? Conceivably, none of the above. A case can be made that the biggest danger is represented by a semi-submerged archipelago in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands, object of a confrontation between China and the US and America’s regional allies that without wisdom and restraint could escalate beyond control.
The stakes, even by a purely material reckoning, are exceptionally high. The tiny islands sit astride a shipping route carrying $5trn of trade a year. The waters that surround them contain rich fishing grounds and, almost certainly, major reserves of oil and other resources. The dispute over the Spratlys, where China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims of maritime sovereignty, goes back decades. But only recently, with the increasingly assertive and nationalistic policies of Beijing, has it gone critical.
Unsurprisingly, rival claimants far closer to the Spratlys than China are deeply alarmed by these developments. So, and even more ominously, is the US, their de facto protector. While John Kerry, the Secretary of State, has been urging restraint on Beijing, the Pentagon sent a surveillance aircraft over the disputed area last week, ignoring eight warnings from the Chinese military to leave. Now Washington has announced it is considering sending warships and warplanes into the 12-mile strip of “territorial waters” around this emerging Chinese base.
But this response has merely prompted more sabre rattling from Beijing. In a new strategic document, China’s State Council has set out plans for the country’s military to shift from a defensive to a more offensive posture, with a focus on the South China Sea. Meanwhile a newspaper close to the ruling Communist Party has described the island-building as the country’s “most important bottom line”. If the bottom line of the US is that China must halt these activities, it added, “then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea”.
But the Spratlys crisis is not merely over resources. It is part of a wider global pattern. The assertiveness of China and Russia, the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East – each testifies to regional powers filling a void left by the perceived retreat of the US, the established power, under a President seen by his adversaries as weak. In these circumstances confrontations are inevitable. The most perilous of them may yet be with China.
Full article: An extremely dangerous conflict is brewing between the US and China in a tiny archipelago in the South China Sea (The Independent)