South China Sea Change

'Against the backdrop of disputes in the South China Sea, there are ominous reports that China is trying to close the 20-year gap between its navy and that of the US'

Mischief used to be the name of a reef belonging to the Philippines in the Spratly Islands, a few of its rocks only just visible during certain tides in the South China Sea. On Admiralty nautical charts, the Spratly Islands used to be marked “Dangerous Ground”.

Nowadays Mischief is an inhabited “island”, as troublesome as its name suggests, though no longer as a shipping hazard. During the 1994 monsoon season that kept the modest Philippine navy in port, the Chinese navy landed and erected some structures on stilts. 

There are 150 “features” in the Spratly Islands, though only 48 of them are visible at high tide, and in aggregate their landed extent is three square miles. They are among further “features” — the Paracel Islands, the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoals-which are hotly contested by the surrounding littoral states. Then there is the dispute over what the mainland Chinese call Diaoyu Dao, the Taiwanese the Tiaoyutai Islands,  and the Japanese the Senkakus in the East China Sea. There are ongoing anti-Japanese riots in many Chinese cities as what Beijing regarded as a useful chauvinistic distraction from the Party’s internal problems have run out of control, rather like nationalist pressure groups in Wilhelmine Germany before 1914. 

Although China is routinely depicted as the regional aggressor, in reality there are separate maritime disputes between Japan, South Korea and Russia, between Taiwan and Vietnam, and between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Barnacle-covered rocks are not what are at issue. 

A third of world trade passes from the Indian Ocean via the Malacca Straits into the South China Sea, including the oil needed to power East Asia’s economies. Japan imports 90 per cent of its oil, China about 50 per cent and rising. The remnant of a prehistoric continent, the shallow Sunda Shelf, means that conditions are optimal for offshore oil and gas exploration. About 10 per cent of the world’s fishing catch is derived from the South China Sea, much of it caught by Vietnamese boats that sell to China’s teeming coastal populations. Any number of fishermen have been detained by the coastguards of several littoral nations.

While international lawyers make hay with the distinction between a rock and an island, these serial disputes have taken on wider ramifications. It is not coincidental that tensions have flared up as China undergoes a changing of the ruling guard in November, while both Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda and South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak are regarded as weak prime ministers who could benefit from beating the patriotic drum. The 67th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War on August 15 was a useful moment for both Chinese and South Korean leaders to push anti-Japanese buttons. 

All of the littoral countries fear Chinese ambitions. The most striking manifestation of this has been the rapprochement between Vietnam and the US. As the Americans have reason to appreciate, the Vietnamese can fight wars. American warships conduct joint exercises with their Vietnamese counterparts, and the US has become Communist Vietnam’s largest foreign investor.   

As the US switches 60 per cent of its defence effort to the Pacific, including a new X-Band radar system, as worrying to China as the East European anti-Iranian missile equivalent was to Russia, the Chinese Navy is deciding what to call its first aircraft carrier. In 1998 a private company bought the rusting hull of the Varyag, a former Soviet aircraft carrier from a shipyard in the Ukraine, claiming it was destined to become a floating casino. After extensive refitting, it is now a carrier smaller than any in the US fleet, but larger than France’s Charles de Gaulle (Britain doesn’t have any). 

As Confucius wrote: “If something is not named properly, then it can hardly be justified in argument. If something is not properly justified, then it can hardly achieve its aim.” During the Cultural Revolution, Mao revised how ships were named, using provinces and regions for the class, with a number for the vessel itself. Beijing is toying with the idea of naming its new carrier after the renegade admiral, Shi Lang, who in 1683 led 300 ships to conquer Formosa (now Taiwan), thereby completing the Qing empire.

There are ominous reports that China is trying to close the 20-year gap between its navy and that of the US, building a new generation of catamaran carriers with twin flight decks and submarine docks. Such vessels are not designed to seize a few rocks in the middle of nowhere, but for real mischief, especially if the Chinese government loses control of the chauvinist tweeters and bloggers it has let loose on its critics and they end up forcing its hand.

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