I suspend, for one editorial, the story referring to the possible great bargain that might have occurred (or might occur soon) between Russia and the USA after the visits by high American officials in Sochi and Moscow, by the middle of last month. And I do this because, at the opposite extremity of Eurasia, not unconnected to what happens in Ukraine, important events for the overall global situation have taken place in our opinion.
The file we are referring to is the one connected to the recent events at South China Sea, which is, as we know, one of the global security hotspots, as several states, and especially China invoked increasing assertiveness in claiming the ownership of various islands. Although, in most cases, these are mere rocks or corral formations, which are not favourable – neither in dimensions, nor in facilities – to human settlements, the debate around their ownership got very heated during the last few years, due to the consistent oil and gas reserves found at the bottom of the ocean. Recurrent crises have started during the last few years related to one or the other of these islands; the most notorious of them are those connected to the Spratly archipelago, which is claimed not only by China, but also by Vietman, Malaysia and Taiwan. The situation of South China Sea, where numerous countries bordering the sea have ample claims to the aquatic area, represents a feature that was never experienced at such extent in other regions of the world. In order to make sure that their demands would be accepted, the respective states either attempt installing military bases on the islands (rocks, corral formations) claimed and not inhabited, and on the other hand, using submerged rocks located nearby, they build territory, artificial land using modern technology (China, Vietnam). The purpose of such action is to expand the terrestrial surface of the respective island so that, according to international laws, the national maritime areal, located at the limit of 12 marine miles to the shore, would be enlarged accordingly. Not accidentally, these actions are usually followed by the buildings of plane tracks of obvious military utility (one such track built by Vietnam has the capacity to grant landing to the huge C-130 transportation planes.)
The tensions in South China Sea related to competing claims made by countries bordering the sea were constant during the last few years. In 2012 and 2013, by example, tensions were registered between the Philippines and China regarding Scarborough Shoal, and between Vietnam and China, in the same year, regarding Paracel’s. The fact that both the Philippines and Vietnam have requested international arbitration, determined China, according to several experts, initiate, before the verdict would be pronounced, a massive expansion of “artificial islands” using the aforementioned technology. Starting this January, Beijing has accelerated this procedure so that, according to a report issued by Pentagon, the expansion of artificial terrestrial territory extended to approximately 2,000 acres, 1,500 of which were built starting this January. Ever since the beginning of this May, the USA started expressing concern on this situation, and one of the statements made by Secretary for Defense Ashton Carter is revealing:
“China is out of step with both international norms that underscore the Asia-Pacific’s security architecture, and the regional consensus in favour of noncoercive approaches to this and other long-standing disputes,” . In a later declaration, he added that the U.S. “will remain the principal security power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”
Tensions increased after May 20, as an American reconnaissance aircraft has conducted a flight over some of these artificially extended islands of the Spratly archipelago. The aircraft carried on board a team of reporters, who have recorded and then published a story revealing the exchanges of replies between the American aircraft and Chinese interceptors, as the latter have emphasised China’s sovereignty upon the explored space: “This is the Chinese navy, this is the Chinese navy, this is Chinese sky”; “Foreign military aircraft, this is the Chinese navy, you are approaching our military alert zone. Please leave immediately to avoid misjudgement.” A few days later, Beijing published a high importance document referring to the military doctrine of the country. In the document, it was openly stipulated that China’s military orientation is peaceful, focused on international cooperation, yet it also mentioned the training of the army in order to defend the interests of the Chinese state and nation. Under the circumstances, as specialists noted, Chinese planners emphasised the fact that the naval element will be granted a new dimension, and it was obvious that grand platforms of distance – projecting force – air carriers and submarines – will be granted the adequate attention to suit China’s new economical amplitude – the greatest economy in the world – and the established strategy to ensure its continuous development. “In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from ‘offshore waters defense’ to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection’’, and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.”
Under these circumstances, at the end of May 2015, the 14th edition of Shangri-La Dialogue took place in Singapore. It was an annually planned reunion, attended by Defence Ministers in the Asia-Pacific region and invited counterparts of various regions of the world. It is not an overstatement that a harsh exchange of replies was awaited among the representatives of the USA (Minister Ashton Carter) and those of China (Admiral Sun Jianguo, the assistant of the Defence Minister). Despite of these expectations, this tensioned exchange did not occur, as Carter has already forwarded his message” – “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all over the world. America, alongside its allies and partners in the regional architecture, will not be deterred from exercising these rights… After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.” On the contrary, he demanded China, on a firm tone, to stop the extension of artificial territory. And Admiral Sun Jianguo’s response was a tempered one, as he promised that the new installations will be used with civilian purposes, the security of navigation and meteorological observation.
Obviously, the “militarization” of the debate is not excluded in the future, and it may also mean the US assigning military ships to outline its right to sail on international waters, which might increase temperature in the region.
Which is the connection of South China Sea tensions and the crisis in Ukraine?
During June 1 – 3, London hosted the annual reunion of Royal Institute for International Relations (Chatham House) dedicated to the present systemic evolution, and attended by reputed experts of various states, including former and present policymakers. Among the circulated ideas, that may be discovered easily following the official Twitter account of the reunion, two must be quoted even before answering the question above. “The world is not fragmenting; it is moving towards a networked structure” and “Don’t re-invent the world order, but expand it with greater flexibility for emerging powers”. As we all know, the conflict in Ukraine, that engages Russia, is increasing interpreted as being determined by the latter’s post-imperial assertiveness, seeking the installation of a new order – or the flexibilization of the present one. Events in South China Sea and the opposition of the US to the “moves” of China should not be dramatized at all. Among the ideas discussed at the conference mentioned above, there are other two revealing in this direction: “China is not trying to undermine the existing world order – it knows that has underpinned its own success” and “There is a sufficient set of core values between US & China that could form the basis of a 21st c world order” (both belong to former Australian Prime Minister K. Rudd).
Obviously, it would be simplistic somehow to launch the hypothesis that Beijing has adopted this strongly assertive position in order to challenge the US with a new “front” in Asia – Pacific and therefore, to challenge Washington to release the pressure upon Russia in the Ukrainian crisis. It is simplistic as, first of all, Russia’s relation to China is not sufficiently close for such manner of action that demands a closer association that the existence of an amplified Shanghai-5, and second, because China’s involvement of such nature in the Ukrainian crisis would not suit at all the present orientation of Berlin in the international arena. And the hypothesis that the US, concerned by the announcement of the recent Russian – Chinese naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea, allegedly tried to “occupy” China, in the vicinity of its borders and not by actions of global amplitude, seems similarly simplistic. Yet, the logic followed today by international security is less simplistic, as all major events occurring in various regions of the planet and especially in the area of Eurasia create a complex, an association of networks – the world is not fragmented, therefore, it is arranged in such complex – and it similarly interests all grand powers. Therefore, the things that go on in the South China Sea are connected to the evolution of the Ukrainian crisis because they involve, directly or not, the two lead protagonists of the Ukrainian crisis, the United States and Russia.