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Experts believe that US-China face-off may take a toll on their global competitiveness Image Credit: Reuters

While the world remains consumed in the ravages caused by the spread of Covid-19, many troubled areas that have a potential for major crises are going unnoticed. South China Sea (SCS), much of which is claimed as a sovereign territory by China is one such area.

In addition, Vietnam, The Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia claim part of the sea — bringing them in direct conflict with China. The United States dismisses the Chinese claims, as do the US allies.

Earlier in the month, when China was conducting its usual naval drills near the disputed Paracel Islands, which The Philippines and Vietnam protested against, the US sent its two aircraft carrier strike forces, USS Ronald Raegan — the world’s largest ship and USS Nimitz into the disputed area for its own exercises.

Hopefully, the big powers will make choices to make this a truly ‘Asian Century.’ Asia-Pacific is a big area for the two largest economies to coexist and contribute to prosperity that has propelled this region to economic dynamism

- Sajjad Ashraf, former diplomat

The US accuses China of building and militarising eight artificial islands as well as two dozen island outposts around disputed reefs and islets, where several smaller states have territorial claims.

The reality is that “five claimants occupy nearly 70 disputed reefs and islets spread across the SCS. They have built more than 90 outposts on these contested features, many of which have seen expansion in recent years” — according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

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Of these China has 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands and 7 in the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines controls nine features in the Spratly Islands one of which also boasts an airstrip.

Vietnam, the other claimant occupies about 50 posts spread across 27 features in the SCS. Malaysia occupies five features and Taiwan only one.

Militarising artificial islands

Each one of these states have militarised its possessions under the garb of technical or scientific reasons years ago. Chinese get the blame for militarising the artificial islands but it is Vietnam and the Philippines that “militarised” the reclaimed features first.

Though the Duterte administration more or less put the 2016 Hague tribunal’s decision on the SCS — upholding the Philippines claims — on the back burner, many in the US continue to pressure The Philippines government to handle the SCS sovereignty issue based on The Hague judgement.

The recent decision of The Philippines to rescind notices of termination on Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US points to this direction.

The Vietnamese and the US interest converge on SCS as control over the SCS provides a perfect strategic base for the US to attempt containing China and for Vietnam a balance against the Chinese predominance.

President Xi Jinping’s offer not to militarise any of the features in the SCS made to President Obama as long as the US does not send its naval vessels in the SCS to provoke the Chinese was spurned by the US military establishment, thus missing a great opportunity at big power cooperation.

South China Sea holds about 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves. Much more remains potentially undiscovered. The value of fish resource in the SCS also runs into billions of dollars. One-third of global shipping flows through the SCS.

China is the world’s biggest trading nation. With total trade of $4.6 trillion in 2019 China, more than any other country needs secure sea lanes.

Chinese objections

SCS is China’s front yard through which much of China’s trade and energy flows. It is therefore, perfectly natural for China to object to US’s FONOP operations close to China’s coast.

The US maintains several military bases, some nuclearised, around China. 60 per cent of US Navy is generally deployed in the Pacific region. These bases and US actions now in conjunction with ‘the Quad’ — a group of like-minded states that includes US, Japan, Australia and India pose a direct threat to China’s sea lanes.

No nation that relies so much on international commerce can afford to leave its sea lanes at the mercy of an adversarial power.

The ‘rules-based order’ which the US expects from others is essentially the ‘American order’ when the US itself is not a member of UNCLOS — the UN Convention of Law of the Seas. China, the emerging power refuses to succumb to this selective application of principles.

The American superiority along with deepening military alliances in the region and provocative actions against China leaves it with no alternative except to build up its defences to secure its supply routes through the SCS.

Amid the China — US tussle, Southeast Asian nations face a particular dilemma. The US believes in “either you are with us or against us” policy.

These countries see the US as a resident power in the region whereas a rising China is a reality on the doorstep. And while underscoring China’s deepening engagement with the region, they do not want to be forced to make a choice between the two.

Hopefully, the big powers will make choices to make this a truly ‘Asian Century.’ Asia-Pacific is a big area for the two largest economies to coexist and contribute to prosperity that has propelled this region to economic dynamism.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and was Pakistan’s consul general in Dubai during the mid 1990s.