By Nabel Akram
South China Sea is situated in the western edge of Pacific Ocean (Ma, 2016). It is the busiest sea for trade and multiple activities of the regional as well as other regional countries. Chinese claimed that China had ruled in South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands from 200 BC (Rachel, 2013). British were the first who initiated navigation and geo-survey of the islands of the South China Sea in 1762-1802 and 1805 and published the map of the South China Sea with its different features. It was Richard Spratly who visited Spratly Islands of South China Sea near Philippines in 1843 and gave his name to these islands. British did not show interest in these islands because these islands have no attraction and economic charm in those days (Buszynski, 2015). China and Vietnam have conflict over Paracel and Spratly Islands in the SCS whereas Philippine, Malaysia and Brunei have claim over Spratly Islands due to the part of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China claims that this sea has remained in effective control of Chinese government from Han dynasty (206 BC to 9 AD) till 1933 when France intervene and occupied the Spratly Island. China got control over Spratly and Paracel Island after the Second World War (Shicun, 2013).
After France withdrawal from the Indochina region in 1950s, China occupied half of the Paracel Island on the other hand South Vietnam sent its troops and got control over remaining Paracel Island. The US left the Vietnam in 1973 and the very next year China attacked other remaining Paracel Island and got control over whole Paracel archipelago in South China Sea. Further, China was getting forward to the direction of the Spratly Islands in 1980s and occupied six features of islands in 1988 with collision to Vietnamese troops. China continued its slow and steady strategy in South China and occupied Philippines controlled Mischief Reef in 1995 and got control over Scarborough Shoal in 2012. China initiated the construction of artificial islands in 2014 in order to strengthen its position in these islands (Japan Ministry of Defense, 2016).
Vietnamese and Philippines Hedging against China
China’s last thirty years economic progress has converted China into strong military power. China will make utmost effort to establish its hegemony in Asia whereas the US will try to contain China with the help of Chinese neighbors. This will lead to massive military and security competition between the US along with its East Asian allies and China (Mearsheimer, 2010). If China becomes like Hong Kong then it will be really hard to prevent the world from Chinese military power (Kaplan R. , 2012). Chinese hegemonic intentions are comprising to make Taiwan its part and bring South China Sea and Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in East China Sea under its sovereignty. China also wants to push back the US to western hemisphere. It wants to control over the western pacific (Mearsheimer J. , 2001).
There is another view that the rise of China will not be peaceful as Germany, Japan and the US fought First and Second World Wars and became hegemonic powers on the behalf of war. Similarly, China is challenging the US hegemony in the East Asia region and it shall cause a war between China and the US in order to change the status quo (Layne, 2008). China will rise as an aggressive power and the rise of China can cause war in order to establish its hegemony.
China considers the US as an aggressive hegemonic state because it fought six consecutive wars during the era of 1989 to 2011, two times against Iraq, two times against Serbia and attacked Afghanistan and Libya (Mearsheimer, 2012). During Korean War, the US did not fight with North Korea but with China. There is a point that the US has never fought against the USSR but has experience to fight with China from 1950 to 1953 during Korean War. China always considers the US as an aggressive state and dangerous foe (Mearsheimer, 2010).
There is also a different opinion that China will rise as a peaceful power and it cannot cause any trouble for world. It is fact that rapid economic growth of China is an open threat for the US hegemony and western democratic and liberal system. China wants to establish its hegemony over smaller countries and its neighbors. Roy suggests that first China should increase the standers of its peoples. China should establish its military for defensive purpose. World especially the US should not feel any danger from China (Roy, 2013).
China and Vietnam has complex relations due to its geographical proximity and economic interdependence. Vietnam’s communist Party Central committee announced its foreign policy regarding China in 2013 in which Vietnam adopted that it would treat China as its ideological and economic partner. Although Vietnamese claim over Paracel and Spratly islands would remain as critical part of the both countries relations (Hiebert M. , 2015). Same case is happening in the relations of China and Philippines. Philippines is near to western democracy and has strong influence of the US on its political and economic affairs. China is the largest trading partner of the Vietnam. Volumes of trade between both countries are 98 billion dollars (Sieren, 2017).
Vietnam has taken this issue in international forums and gained support of world powerful states like India, Japan, Russia and the US. Vietnam is balancing itself through modernization of its army, navy, air force and the coast guards. Vietnam is also engaging defense and security alliances with the US for the sack of balancing the power of China in South China Sea. The US has lifted the arm embargo from Vietnam for normalizing the relations of both countries. First time in the history of the Vietnam, the US and Vietnam has conducted the joint exercises and rescue operations in sea as well as in air in April 2014. Vietnamese navy is gradually gaining power and modernizing and enhancing its capacity to face the Chinese navy. Vietnam will operate six Russian advanced Kilo class submarines in 2017. These submarines will equipped with land attack missiles which can hit the Chinese submarines. Vietnam’s air force has got a 36 Su-30 MK2 fighter jets and Russia made air craft for Vietnam due to enhancing its power against China. Vietnam also raised its voice in Association of the South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum and showed its concerns regarding the Chinese assertiveness in South China Sea. Vietnam persuaded these countries that the aggressive behavior of China could also cause a threat for other neighboring countries. Vietnam has further option to take China in court under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) like Philippines (Hiebert M. , 2015).
Investment of China has caused to strengthen and the growing of the economy of Vietnam. It also caused to fulfill the gap of unemployment in this country.
- Vietnamese strong economy has built the internal power of Vietnam. Economic strength can be utilized in order to make strong Vietnamese military which provide a mean to hedge China with the help of Chinese investment.
- This economic integration also caused to minimize the tension of South China Sea dispute and strengthen the bilateral relations. Both countries will prefer their economic ties and try to solve the disputed matters through table talk.
- Strong economic ties caused to improve relations on the base of economic stacks. In this regard stakeholders would not intend to create negative relations with each other. In this way such economics ties caused to increase peace and stability between two countries (Hiep, 2013).
Vietnam’s strong economic relations with China shows strong and close economic relations with China and involvement of Chinese stacks and benefits with Vietnam on the other hand the involvement of the US and Japan being largest exporters after China shows the behavior of Vietnam which is following hedging strategy against China through regional and extra-regional actors.
Vietnam has established its strategic partnership with many power full countries. Followings are the detail of Vietnam’s strategic partnership with other countries; Strategic Partnership of Vietnam and Russia established in 2001, India 2007, South Korea 2009, Japan 2006, the UK 2010, Spain 2009, Germany 2011, France, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand in 2013 and China 2008. Vietnam has executed comprehensive partnerships with Australia in 2009 and the US in 2013. These all countries are the most influential countries of world institutions like, UN Security Council, ASEAN, G8, G20 etc. (Hiep, 2013, p. 357). These alliances would secure Vietnam from any Chinese aggression.
Spratly Islands (Kalyan Islands Group) are the part of Philippines territory. KIG is the part of Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under UNCLOS 1982 (Palma, 2009). Philippines has filed a case against China and its historical claim of nine dash lines in International court of Tribunal in Hague in 2013. Court has given decision in favor of Philippines on 12 July 2016 but China has rejected the decision and remained adamant in its claim (France-Presse, Agence, July 8th, 2016). Philippines and Chinese relations worsen due to Philippines case and the ongoing problem in Scarborough Shoal and Chinese construction of new islands. This was the scenario when Philippines new president Rodrigo Roe Duterte took charge on 30 July 2016 (Philippine History, 2017) and initiated new strategy that is called strategic hedging. Although Philippines previous governments have close economic and political relations but current government is leading in this respect. Philippines started to engage China with a huge trade volume. Politically, Philippines has come closer to China (Shead, 2017). Although Philippines has weak military but it seems to be developed it’s military with the coordination of the US, Russia and other countries. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is the most important agreement signed between two parties on 28 April 2014 (Soliven, 2016). Philippines has good position in ASEAN and it is third largest country in economic term in ASEAN region (Business World Online, 2015). Philippines has great military alliance with the US and its defense is largely based on the US military agreements and assistance. These are political, economic and military tools which Philippines is using against China.
The US interests in the South China Sea
The Geo-strategic position and bundle of resources are the main reason that China is very conscious to control this region whereas other regional actors like Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia and Brunei are also active for sovereignty over these islands due to geo-proximity and resources. The US as the global hegemon has become the part of this game and wants to get its part from these resources. This is the reason that it has established strong alliances with other stack holders against China and also provoking Japan, Australia and India against China due to this regional dispute. The SCS is important for the US for three purposes; first it secures the US trade and military, second, it is check to restrain and contain the Chinese hegemony in the East Asia region (Mustajib, 2016), third, it is necessary for the protection of the US allies like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan and ASEAN member countries. On the trade basis, the SCS is the passage of the 5 trillion annual ships (Robinson, 2018) and ships related to the US trade and military activities are worth 1.2 trillion dollar trade with East Asian countries (Mustajib, 2016).
The US has great concern over Chinese assertiveness in South China Sea. More than one trillion trades of the US passes from South China Sea. The US does not want that China dominates this place. This is the reason that the US emphasizes in freedom of navigation. The US, Japan and the European countries are deeply dissatisfied over the rising power of China in South China Sea. They consider that China will create obstacles in freedom of navigation whereas the US wants to protect it. China has not shown any gestures that it will stop the passages for other countries in South China Sea. According to the UNCLOS, no state can face any obstacle from other state in international water. Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles comes under the sovereignty of a state and other part of the sea is the part of international sea and international sea is the subject of international law (Kuok, 2016). The US Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) has conducted six operations in South China Sea against the Chinese claim of Spratly and Paracel Island. China has responded aggressively to the US FON in Chinese territories. China claimed that the US is involved in FON in its territory without its permission. It also claims that this US behavior is the obvious violation of the Chinese sovereignty and violation of the international law (Panda, 2017).
The US has also deployed its military in Pacific region to contain China in order to secure it from establishing hegemony. There are 40,000 the US troops in Japan. 16,000 US troops are deployed in this area of the second Place of Japan which is called Afloat. 28,500 US troops are deployed in South Korea. There are only 500 rotational US troops in Philippines. A Strategic place called Guam contains 4,500 US troops. Singapore and Malacca Straits are strategically important places and the US has deployed four Littoral Combat Ships near Singapore. There will be 2,500 troops in Darwin in Australia. The US and Australia are discussing a plan to deployed a large number of US navy troops in Perth and also want to establish naval bases in Perth.
*Nabel Akram, Master of Philosophy in Political Science