At its root it is all about resources — protein to supplement meager domestic harvests and oil to drive economies that governments push to unnatural and unsustainable annual growth. It is about an emergent regional power, poised on the brink of asserting itself as something more, flexing new found muscle in new domains and deepening suspicion of others in the region. . . “It” is a body of water, bounded to the west by Indochina, to the south by Indonesia and the east by the Philippine Islands. A marginal sea, it is the largest body of water after the world’s five oceans, measuring some 3.5 million square kilometers. Bordered by nearby home for over 270 million people.
Through its passages at Malacca and Taiwan, pass great streams of commerce — more than half the world’s supertankers and almost half of the world’s tonnage by most counts. Outward-bound to distant lands with finished products, inbound with the raw wealth drilled, mined, scraped and otherwise pulled from the earth, grist for the shore-bound industries. From crowded, stinking cities and wave-swept shore, fishermen set to sea to bring its bounty back to a waiting family, village or hungry nation. They set sail in everything from small boat to vast maritime industrial fleets, so efficient at harvesting but with so little thought of sustainment. At day’s end, visitor and native alike pause to consider the marvels of a watercolor sky, brushed in deep shades of vermilion and azure from above met by molten gold and dark sapphire from below – merging on the horizon.
Marvelous beauty, marvelous bounty – but alas, one that has seen mighty conflict in its time. From the early days of vessels powered by muscles and fear, to sail and later, plied by great grey hulking beasts that sought out like kind for battle or hurl anger ashore, it has seen war in all its stark, naked rage.
The South China Sea. Nán Hǎi. Dagat Timog Tsina. Laut China Selatan. Biển Đông.
The resources – living and mineral, have been a source of strife among the major regional actors and a look at the multitude of claim/counter-claim lines drawn on a chart, of overlapping claimed sovereignty is to behold a modern Gordian-knot. The modern day Alexander in the region, China, has sought to quietly, relentlessly snip away at that knot through bi-lateral negotiations, playing nations off one another and using new found bluster to attempt to quash any semblance of emergent multi-lateral dialogue. A 2002 declaration of conduct between ASEAN nations and China wherein all would exercise restraint over claims in the region has begun to unravel. ASEAN members claim it is meaningless in the face of Chinese naval assertiveness in the region and growing conflicts between fishing fleets and naval forces. The US, no stranger to these waters from the late-19th century forward, is still a relative new comer but underscoring its resurgent presence in SE Asia, asserted through SecState Clinton’s surprising (to the Chinese) statement last month at a forum on maritime matters hosted in Hanoi, that a leading diplomatic priority for the US would be a multilateral approach to resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea while challenging China’s claims to the entirety of the sea.
China’s response wasn’t long in coming.
The Chinese military declared Friday that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea but insisted it would continue to allow others to freely navigate one of the busiest waterways in the world.
The statement by the People’s Liberation Army seemed designed to reiterate China’s claims to the entire 1.3 million-square-mile waterway while calming concerns in Washington and Asian capitals that its policy toward the region had suddenly become significantly more aggressive.
“China has indisputable sovereignty of the South Sea, and China has sufficient historical and legal backing” to support its claims, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, a Ministry of Defense spokesman, told reporters Friday during a visit to an engineering unit on the outskirts of Beijing.
But he added, “We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of the passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries.”
Coming on the heels of competing naval exercises off the Korean peninsula and in the Yellow Sea in July by China (which also began a major round of air exercises today), the US remarks raised hopes of nations in the region who have expressed increasing concern over China’s growing naval presence. At home, the Chinese press whipped itself into a veritable froth, taking every opportunity to highlight the naval exercises and declare China’s emergence, something the MoD spokesman quoted above noted later in the same press conference as “not helpful.”
Make no mistake about it — if the US chooses to press ahead in the region militarily and diplomatically there will be substantive challenges and an increased likelihood of a confrontation on the high seas. China has made no bones about using sharp elbows where it feels its sovereignty is being impinged and with increased capacity and capabilities, will undoubtedly feel it is in a position of greater strength to exercise the same. On the part of the US, it is the opening act of what a number of writers and strategists are coming to see as at least one major feature of a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world – one that requires a naval presence for persistent presence, able to flow forces on short notice that are able to conduct sustained operations from the seabase. It is the core of the maritime strategy and naval operations concept.
It is also one that demands a navy with wide-ranging capabilities across the spectrum of war and which will not be found in a dwindling force of undermanned ships, aging aircraft and neglected weapons systems. It will require small combatants, big-deck amphibs, multi-mission destroyers and cruisers, submarines for hunting and deterrence and carriers that bring a revitalized mission of sea control back into a portfolio too-long dominated by strike warfare. Grey hulls, white hulls. Sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman. The need is there — the question – can we afford to build and sustain the necessary force structure to put “paid” to the diplomatic checks being written?
Can we afford not to?
crossposted at steeljawscribe.com
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