Will it be war in the South China Sea?



by Marius Grinius

June 9, 2016

Arguably, the drama taking place in the South China Sea these days amounts to an important piece in the new “Great Game” playing out between the world’s remaining superpower — the United States, seen by some to be in decline — and the challenger China, which wants to take its rightful place as an equal, perhaps as even more.

The U.S. is faced with the strategic challenge of managing China’s global ascendancy peacefully at a time when it is also distracted by other geopolitical crises.

China maintains that most of the South China Sea islands — as illustrated by a Chinese map of the region — have been part of their territory since ancient times. China continues its ambitious dredging program to make artificial islands out of the reefs and shoals that it occupies within the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. These operations have been backed with the deployment of surveillance and early warning radars, anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles.

Many of the same islands are also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. While the U.S. has not taken sides in these territorial disputes, the U.S. Navy has carried out a number of freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPS) with warships and aircraft through disputed waters near islands occupied by China — which, for its part, has described such American actions as dangerous, irresponsible and contrary to Chinese law.

Ironically, both sides claim their actions are aimed at maintaining peace and stability in the region. Some observers fear, however, that the situation will lead ultimately to a military clash between China and the U.S.

In the short term, China will continue to vigorously proclaim its indisputable territorial sovereignty, maritime rights, and interests, and will back them up with additional military installations and deployments. Although China is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which regulates global maritime behavior and territorial sovereignty, it has stated that it will ignore the results of the imminent Permanent Court of Arbitration in reference to the 2014 case submitted by the Philippines against China’s claims.

China argues that, since the territory is indisputably Chinese, there is no need for any arbitration. The U.S. will need to be careful and resolute in how it manages its FONOPS exercises, knowing that China will not and cannot back down. The same will apply to China as it continues to react to U.S. operations.

It’s in Canada’s highest interest to ensure that the South China Sea remains a zone of peace, stability, prosperity and open international passage. China is now Canada’s number two trading partner, and Japan is number three, with some $5.3 trillion of trade passing through the South China Sea annually. A bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is in place with South Korea and there is the prospect of a 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and eventual FTAs with China, Japan and India.

Canada can contribute to regional stability through participation in various multinational maritime exercises in the region in support of UNCLOS, and by demonstrating through diplomatic means that it is closely following the situation and actually has a national position on the issue. If Canada is indeed “back” on the international scene, it can also contribute by supporting renewed involvement in informal Track Two dialogue by Canadian Law of the Sea experts, as it has in the past.

In the bigger context of the new Great Game, however, the question remains whether China, for all its growing economic and military clout, can act as a responsible global leader that supports and defends the rule of international law.

Marius Grinius is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He is the former Canadian ambassador to Vietnam, to North and South Korea and to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

Image: Reuters

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