March 20, 2009
A few days ago, Chinese boats jostled with a US naval ocean surveillance vessel that Beijing said was conducting an illegal survey in its waters. The US National Intelligence Office stated that the Chinese had become assertive in staking claims to international waters and were more militarily aggressive in the South China Sea than before.
Incidents of this kind – this was not a one-off – are salutary reminders of the ‘war games’ being constantly played on the high seas. China obviously has a heavy naval presence in the South China Sea. The US also maintains a strong presence in the area, although it has no territorial interests in the region
The strategic importance of the South China Sea cannot be overstated. 80% of Chinese oil imports and half the world’s oil tankers pass through the Sea, which contains shipping lanes that are absolutely essential to China’s economy.
According to the China Daily, China may convert more retired navy ships into fishing patrol vessels for the South China Sea. Such an intention would deeply worry several countries in the region, which also have maritime claims. They are concerned about China’s motives.
There are longstanding disputes over islands in the Sea with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a brief naval battle near the Spratlys’ Johnson Reef.
The discovery of oil and gas in the South China Sea islands in the 1960s suggest that there are large undersea deposits around the valuable fishing grounds. However, progress in exploration has been hampered by sovereignty.
China has clearly increased its patrols, saying that it was responding to increased illegal fishing and territorial claims to islands by other nations in the region.
Washington is worried about China’s increased defence spending in recent years, and Vietnam, Japan and other neighbours are concerned that a stronger China may become more assertive about its territorial claims.
There is ‘an accident waiting to happen’ in the South China Sea. All the countries affected need to take the utmost precautions to avoid an incident provoking a serious naval or military skirmish. And this means, in particular, the United States and China.Author : Stanley Crossick