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SOUTH CHINA SEA TURMOIL
'Cold War' heats-up as Obama declares to assert against China

Cover Story

, by SYYED MANSOOR AGHA

In the light of US president Barack Obama’s bid to assert against China, SYYED MANSOOR AGHA observes that China’s present attitude towards its small neighbours is bound to give excuse to external forces to meddle in the region.

President Barack Obama has set a course for confrontation with Beijing when he declared his intentions to send military aircraft and up to 2,500 Marines to “protect American interests” and to expand U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region. He declared in the Australian Parliament in Canberra on Thursday (Nov 17), “The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” and “to deter threats to peace” in that part of the world.

Obama’s declaration surprised many as the U.S. is facing economic slowdown forced to wind up its war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an unmistakable message to China he said, “Let there be no doubt: In the Asia Pacific in the 21st century, the United States of America is all in.”

Certainly, China has invited U.S. ire by threatening its small neighbouring countries. China even threatened Indian navy ships in South China International waters.

For Obama, Asia represents both a security challenge and an economic opportunity. The region is a conduit for more than one-third of the world’s seaborne trade and half its traffic in oil and gas, and major petroleum deposits are believed to lie below the seabed. The South China Sea region also matters importance because here the competing interests of the US and China overlap in Asia.

China reacted sharply to the U.S. assertion as Premier Wen Jiabao on Nov 18, warned against interference by “external forces” in the region. Beijing sees the initiatives as intruding into its own sphere of influence. “The dispute on the South China Sea is a matter that has been going on for years. It should be resolved by the relevant sovereign states through friendly consultation and discussion directly,” Wen said in his address in ASEAN summit.

“External forces should not use any excuses to interfere,” he added. “China will never seek hegemony and we are against any hegemonic behaviour.”

 

THE DISPUTE

Real cause of fissures in the region is China’s claim over the strategic sea extending for more than 1,000km (621 miles) off its southern coast and reaching into what Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei see as their own waters. Beijing says it does want a peaceful solution but continues hard postures. Vietnam and the Philippines say Chinese ships have stepped up harassment of vessels involved in oil exploration and fishing.

China’s increasingly assertive behaviour over its claimed huge U-shaped maritime area has alarmed its neighbours. They are keen to negotiate with China as a bloc – but China prefers to tackle the issue through bilateral negotiations, and it does not want the US involved at all.

 

ON INDIAN INTERESTS

The dispute has also bearing on Indian interest as most of its trade to American Continents are routed through this sea. Beijing also raised objections over oil exploration in two Vietnamese blocks by India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL). These blocks are well in maritime limits of Vietnam. In another incident, an Indian Navy warship was also warned by an unknown source over radio transmission set to move out of the South China Sea.

Recently speaking in a seminar in New Delhi, Navy chief of India Admiral Nirmal Verma mentioned, “We are seeing edginess in relations between countries of this region. The potential for conflict in South China Sea and instability in Korean Peninsula have heightened awareness of analysts to region’s shortcomings in terms of institutional arrangements to resolve potential crises. The South China Sea is an area of significant concern.”

“Developments in the South China Sea and the outcomes will have major implications not only for countries in the region but for the world at large, as many nations have considerable economic interests in the region,” he said.

 

WHAT IRKED AMERICA

Immediate cause of U.S. reflex is obviously rooted in Chinese warning to an American oil company ExxonMobil. The company discovered hydrocarbons in August in a well drilled off the coast of central Vietnam under a licence from the Vietnamese government to explore offshore blocks 117, 118 and 119; an area within Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone under international maritime law.

“Any foreign company shall not engage in oil and gas activities in waters under Chinese jurisdiction. This position is clear and consistent,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei warned on Oct 31.

It is estimated that the South China Sea may hold 213 billion barrels of oil (80 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s reserves) and 2 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s more than five times the 350.8 trillion cubic feet of gas held in North America as cited in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Agency. China, the world’s second-largest economy, claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the these reserves, including blocks off Vietnam that Exxon Mobil Corp. and Russia’s Gazprom OAO and ONGC of India are exploring. How can America let this black gold go inclusively in the hands of its biggest rival?

 

INDIAN STAND

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed the issue with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Friday (Nov 18), on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Bali and asserted India’s right to explore oil in the South China Sea, which China claims as its exclusive domain. “This matter [South China Sea] did come up in the context of East Asia Summit (EAS) and the PM observed that the issues of sovereignty must be resolved according to international law and practice. And he also mentioned that exploration of oil and gas in South China Sea is purely a commercial activity,” Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokespersons told reporters.

During their 55 minutes long meeting, Premier Wen Jiabao said he valued the role India displayed in EAS, the MEA said. Wen reportedly said, “India and China must work hand-in-hand to ensure that the 21st century belongs to Asia (and not to Europe and U.S.A.).” Singh told Wen that the two must work together and cooperate with each other as the two biggest economies of Asia.

In the backdrop of heightened tensions by Obama’s assertion, India and China maintained that there was enough space for both to flourish. During their exchange of views on important issues, Wen reminded Dr. Singh of his comment that there was enough space for the two countries to grow. To that he added that there “were enough areas in the world where China and India can enhance cooperation”. 

“It is important for our two countries, the most populous in the world, to achieve modernisation and work hand in hand,” the Chinese leader said, adding that he was “fully confident that that kind of world will arrive.” 

It seems that India has resolved the issue with China during the meeting as in New Delhi, it was officially stated that ONGC Videsh Ltd. will continue its activity in the region.

 

INDIA’S LOOK EAST POLICY

After neglecting the East Asia region for a long time, India has now awakened and started pursuing it “Look East” Policy vigorously. Prime Minister Singh’s presence in Bali summit underlines rediscovered importance of the region. U.S. intervention is detrimental for both emerging economic powers of Asia – India and China. That is why both have agreed to work together in the region.

Before this Summit, “India hosted the leaders of Myanmar and Vietnam in early October, underscoring the seriousness with which it is pursuing its Look East policy as it forges close economic and security ties with the two to counter China’s penetration. India’s policy was explicitly designed to initiate New Delhi’s re-engagement with East Asia. This is a time of great turmoil in the Asian strategic landscape and India is trying to make itself relevant to the region’s members, observed The Japan Times in a detailed commentary.

“With its political and economic rise, Beijing has started dictating to its neighbours creating tensions. The U S and its allies are re-assessing their regional strategies to counterbalance China’s growing power. It is in this broader context that the recent visits by Myanmar and Vietnam’s presidents to India assume significance,” the Japan Times further said.

 

RESOLUTION OF DISPUTE

Leaders of Communist Parties of Vietnam and China are engaged in solving this dispute. Two countries also signed a six-point agreement on basic principles to settle maritime issues last month after bilateral talks in Beijing. However, “China is becoming much more confident in the region and there are signs it is becoming giddy with success. It has become much more influential, much more quickly than it expected,” says Dr Kerry Brown of the Asia Programme at Chatham House in London.

Vietnam and the Philippines in recent months have seen the snarl of a resurgent regional power that is fast losing patience with the gripes of smaller neighbours over maritime borders.

“If these countries do not want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannons. It may be the only way for the dispute in the sea to be resolved,” said the state run newspaper, the Global Times, in a recent editorial.

“The growth of Chinese military spending is beginning to translate it into hard power,” says John Hemmings, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.

Only magnanimity will help China to infuse confidence in small neighbouring countries. Its present attitude is bound to give excuse to external forces to meddle in the region.

[The writer is Gen.Sec, Forum for Civil Rights, email: syyedagha@hotmail.com]



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