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S. China Sea - the next big power playground

Publication Date : 25-04-2012

 

Major and smaller players wade into area Beijing regards as its backyard

 

Despite strenuous efforts by China to keep other global powers out of the South China Sea, recent movements suggest that Beijing has failed.

The United States, whom China is most keen to block, has boosted its presence there in the last week. It is holding military exercises with the Philippines and having a naval exchange with Vietnam.

As if that is not irritating enough for Beijing, even Russia has muscled in. Its state gas giant Gazprom signed a deal this month with Vietnam to explore reserves in the resource-rich sea.

It mirrored a similar exploration pact that India signed with Hanoi last year, and comes on the back of Japan's long-held influence in the region through years of infrastructure investments in Asean.

The waters China regards as its backyard are fast becoming the world's "next big power playground", say observers.

And much like the Balkan states in the last century, when big countries fought proxy wars in the region, many fear that the sea could become a conflict zone.

Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies senior fellow Ian Storey calls it a potential 'focal point' of great power competition.

The big boys hunger for control over the sea lanes where one-third of the world's shipping trade passes through.

"As tensions continue to simmer in the South China Sea, and the waters become increasingly crowded with new warships, I think it's just a question of time before we see a clash at sea leading to fatalities," he added.

None of the global giants wants to give China free rein over such a precious piece of watery real estate. They have the support of smaller Asean countries that are contesting China's claims and seeking to bolster their claims by internationalising the situation, say observers.

Foreign policy expert Yang Cheng from the East China Normal University said some claimants see merits in playing one major power against another.

Doing so could help the smaller players glean some benefits from the major powers clamouring for their support, he added.

"It seems like the tragedy of great power politics is now the smaller countries' comedy," said Dr Yang.

He said claimants could also become bolder in challenging China, believing that its army, the world's largest, would be restrained in its response so as to avoid conflicts with major powers.

This could be why Manila took a more hardline approach in the two-week stand-off with China over the Scarborough Shoal, which lies north of the Spratly Islands claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam, among others.

"But such mindsets could be dangerous. There is a limit to China's tolerance, especially as the solution to the territorial issues directly relates to the legitimacy of the authorities and many Chinese want the government to be more hardline now that the country is stronger," said Dr Yang.

Also, conflicts may occur if major powers misread conflicting signals and inconsistent policies emanating from China - a possible result of a struggle for money and power between agencies and local governments, said the International Crisis Group in a report this week.

Said its Northeast Asia project director Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt: "Some agencies are acting assertively to compete for a slice of the budget pie, while others such as local governments are focused on economic growth, leading them to expand their activities into disputed waters.

"Their motivations are domestic in nature, but the impact of their actions is increasingly international."

To assert its primacy, Beijing has been on a public relations drive to win more Asean friends.

Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra met top-ranked Chinese leaders in Beijing last week, while China's fourth-ranked leader Jia Qinglin visited Brunei.

Analyst Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies believes the visits are examples of China reassuring its neighbours of its 'benign and cooperative intention'.

He added: "These efforts will partly be helpful in stabilising the South China Sea contention."

 

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