Sunday, May 3, 2015

The South China Sea maritime stake-out: What's at stake.

Almost every analyst who speaks or writes on this subject muddies the waters (forget about the politicians, diplomats and military spokesmen from the various sides -- their task IS to muddy the waters).

So how does the layman try to understand this complicated maritime labyrinth, which sees claimants that range from mighty China to miniscule Brunei? It IS complicated. And I would be in danger of falling into the very trap that many analysts fall into when they start off with the bland statement that there are five claimant states: China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Now that's being specious, because it may not necessarily be incorrect -- if you do not consider Taiwan a legitimate state in the international system (China will affectionately panda-hug you for that).

Taiwan and China in fact share the same nine-dashed claim:

So does that equally make China and Taiwan "casting a giant shadow" claimants? Were you born yesterday? And how on earth (sorry, wrong idiom) is tiny Brunei a claimant? It is indeed a claimant under the UN's Law of the Sea. Well, it does not claim very much: only a corridor extending outwards to this tiny mass called Louisa Reef. Likewise, the Philippines, Malaysia and even Vietnam are partial claimants albeit of very wide-ranging areas. Among them, only Vietnam has the next most comprehensive claim, after China (and Taiwan).

Even Indonesia has a nervous watching brief, in case China decides to include the waters around the Natuna Islands as part of its archipelagic claim (apart from its claim over land masses at sea, including submerged ones).

Noticed that all the above non-China, non-Taiwan claimants are ASEAN members? Unity is strength, man! Haha, every claimant against China/Taiwan is a claimant against its fellow ASEAN claimants. And, as has been witnessed, some other non-claimant ASEAN members are not averse to being wooed by China.

Ah, such geopolitics is fructose ripe for the "pivotal" US to pluck the fruits and muscle in, in support of ASEAN members, right? Well, last I heard is that Washington does not side with any side, even Manila, a treaty ally. Oh yes, the US will come to the aid of the Philippines if any of the latter's territory -- as delineated under the Manila Treaty -- comes under attack. But... go figure.

What about unimpeded freedom of the sea in those strategic waters? So? Has China ever said it will obstruct US ships there? In any case, the US makes the point to have its warships regularly traverse the South China Sea.

If I proceed any further, I will be in danger of muddying the waters. I only need to now use an analogy from economics -- China is the price-maker. All the others, including the US, are price-takers. That is, unless China acts to undermine its own self-interest such as, say, by provoking US warships in the South China Sea, by agreeing to a rules-based Code of Conduct that straits-jackets it (pun intended) or by acceding to UN judicial arbitration.

So sit back now and be amused by these recent headlines/reports:

With so much at stake, and they're talking about changing the name as a possible game-changer???

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