South China Sea As The New Middle East
Voice of Russia
April 17, 2012
South China Sea as the New Middle East
On Monday, 7,000 U.S. and Philippine troops started military exercises in the South China Sea near the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The drill began only a week after an incident involving eight Chinese fishing vessels, Chinese and Filippino warships and coast guard vessels and a Chinese aircraft.
The standoff started when a Filippino warship stopped Chinese fishing vessels with an allegedly illegal haul of corals, giant clams and live sharks. But Chinese warships prevented the Filippino military from making any arrests. Despite talks between Chinese and Philippine diplomats held on Monday, the standoff has not been satisfactorily resolved yet.
Now, both the U.S. and the Philippine military claim that the current drill is in no way related to the standoff. The focus of the exercises will be on “improving security, counter-terrorism and humanitarian and disaster response,” Philippine military spokesman Major Emmanuel Garcia said. Also, both U.S. and Philippine officials stressed that China, which in the past has protested military exercises involving American forces near the contested region, was not an imaginary target in the drills.
In fact, the drill is an annual event planned a long time before. But there are some factors which prompt one to make a conclusion that this year’s exercise has a specific meaning and is – albeit indirectly – related to the Chinese–Philippine standoff.
It comes after the Barack Obama administration positively declared the South China Sea as an area of utmost importance for U.S. national interests. Already the U.S. has started allocation of its troops in adjacent regions. The first 200 marines have already arrived in Australia, and there are plans to deploy warships in Singapore.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, and has lately become a stage for harsh territorial disputes between China on the one hand (which claims the maritime area of the South China Sea almost in its entirety) and other littoral countries, on the other. The bitterest disputes China has with Vietnam and the Philippines. The standoffs with these countries have become a common practice, and recently China issued a warning to other outside powers not to participate too actively in economic projects including oil drilling in the disputed zones. A factor adding to the existing tensions is that all China’s rivals are members of the ASEAN group and would prefer to deal with the territorial dispute in a multilateral format, while China prefers to deal with each country separately.
The U.S. policy of recent years has been that of engaging China’s rivals in the area. Against such a background, the important thing about the current maneuvers is that in the past the U.S.–Philippine exercises were held in other regions of the Philippines, namely in ones grappling with Muslim and communist insurgencies. The current drill is held close to the disputed maritime area and includes a mock retaking of an oil rig supposedly seized by terrorists.
The recent developments in the region, including the current drill, prompt many observers to note that tensions in the area are even higher than in the war-torn Middle East. There, the U.S. was drawn into two wars by the previous administration, and the present administration is trying to solve the problem of getting out of the calamity without losing face.
The strategic aim of containing China is becoming more and more a priority in U.S. foreign policy. At the moment, time is on China’s side – the U.S. will not dare risk any military standoff in the Asia Pacific until it is totally disentangled from the Middle East mess.
This does not exclude forming an alliance of littoral countries with their possible inclusion into an anti-Chinese front of countries like Japan, South Korea and (which is the U.S.’ golden dream) India. So, in future we may see more drills in the disputed waters conducted bilaterally and multilaterally.
Twenty years ago, Filippinos voted for a removal of all U.S. bases, including its biggest naval base in the Pacific at Subic Bay. It seems that U.S. strategists have come to the conclusion that it is time to return to a stage of national importance.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies