Thu, Nov 05, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Australia’s awkward bedfellows

By Sushil Seth

There has been plenty of media commentary and analysis suggesting that US-China relations might be reaching a crunch point regarding the issue of sovereignty over islands and reefs in the South China Sea that Beijing claims and has occupied. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei also have claim territories in the region.

The US comes into the picture as some of the regional claimants, like the Philippines, are long-time US allies and others, like Vietnam, are new friends. However, the US maintains that it has no position on the question of sovereignty, but would simply like China to resolve the territorial disputes peacefully through dialogue with its neighbors.

However, there is a bigger issue involved.

China’s virtually blanket claims and its assertion through building military facilities on naturally occurring and artifical islands is set to turn almost all of the South China Sea into its exclusive territory — thus impeding freedom of navigation through the important waterways.

It is this right to freedom of navigation that the US has challenged by sending a naval ship within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of at least one of the land formations China claims in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).

In addition, the US said it plans to continue to sail, fly and operate through the international waters. China has reacted furiously to this threat to its “sovereignty and security interests.”

A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said that it had “monitored, followed and warned” the US warship during its journey and it would “take all necessary measures” to safeguard its sovereignty against any “premeditated provocation.”

A US statement said that their mission to cruise through the international waters “was completed without incident.”

According to media reports, “more than half the world’s merchant tonnage plies back and forth through this navigable chokehold between the Western Pacific and Indian oceans.”

With China claiming ownership of the territories, and intent on prevailing in the disputes via political or military means, there is fuel enough for a conflagration — as the US seems equally determined to challenge the 12-nautical mile limit China has imposed around the Spratly Islands.

During a panel discussion on Australia’s relations with China on a highly rated Australian TV talk show, a Chinese panelist was asked about what Beijing’s reaction would be if the US were to persist in its forays in the South China Sea. He had no answer, but he reiterated China’s claim to sovereignty over the disputed islands and the waters surrounding them.

However, an answer of sorts can be seen in a 2011 editorial in China’s Global Times, which bluntly warned: “If these countries [opposing China] don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.”

Even accounting for its rhetorical flourish, it is quite a serious way of stating China’s “core interest” as Beijing has defined it. There is not much scope for compromise as Beijing sees it.

Mercifully, at the moment, the situation remains under control.

It was in 2011 that US President Barack Obama announced in the Australian parliament the US “pivot” toward Asia — a “rebalancing” of US focus following a decade of engagement in the Middle East.

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