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China's rulers pressing their claim on the entire South China Sea

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A Chinese Navy nuclear-powered submarine, left, sails during an international fleet to celebrate China's Navy. /AP/FOX

By John J. Metzler 

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — A rhetorical conflict has roiled the waves of the South China Sea,  the strategic resource-rich region bordered , and in part claimed in various parts, by six South East Asian states.   But while Beijing is shoving its political agenda into the disputed waters, the United States correctly fears being caught in the diplomatic crossfire as claims and counterclaims by regional states particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, threaten to spill over into scattered maritime incidents.

Seen from a front row seat in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s great commercial port city on the northern edge of the South China Sea, the region resembles  a great maritime basin through which thread the major sea lanes of communication to Taiwan, Korea, Japan and  Russia.  

Yet the Sea equally boasts mineral and possibly petroleum resources. The  widely scattered Spratly and Paracel Islands moreover,  some of which are garrisoned, are variously claimed by Mainland China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei,  Malaysia, as well as the Republic of China on Taiwan. Sovereignty claims by an assertive People’s Republic of China have rattled nerves and have caused Vietnam to stage live fire naval drills to ward off the Chinese encroachments.

The South China Sea poses the  risk and potential for a serious maritime incident waiting to happen.

Vietnam has played an obvious game of sabre rattling towards China; much of this has to do with the Indochinese nation’s  historic rifts with Beijing as much as with Hanoi’s own domestic political scene. Vietnam has been prospecting for petroleum in the offshore waters. As Taipei’s authoritative China Post editorialized, “The Vietnamese wish to draw the United States into any possible fray with Beijing.”

The Philippines are most exposed to Beijing’s maritime muscle flexing, and Manila’s outdated navy and military is no match for China; thus the Manila government looks to the USA as its ultimate protector.

Significantly the USA is treaty bound  to protect the Philippines under a 1951 accord.  Thus Washington has wisely  tried to turn down the heat as to avoid any miscalculation or flashpoint which could inadvertently involve already stretched American military forces.

The Republic of China on Taiwan controls the Pratas Islands and garrisons Taiping Isle in the Spratly’s.

In a fit of bluster PRC Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tangkai warned that American support of regional partners in the region “can only make things worse,” and warned Washington  “I believe some countries are playing with fire and I hope that the U.S. won’t be burned by this fire.”

So why has the South China Sea issue suddenly reemerged?

Over the past few years, international law to the contrary,  Beijing’s rulers have asserted that the entire 648,000 sq. mile South China Sea falls under “Chinese sovereignty.”    Without taking sides on specific sovereignty claims, the USA asserts these  vital sea lanes pass through international waters.   State Department official Kurt Campbell recently affirmed “We want tensions to subside. We have a strong interest in the maintenance of peace and stability.”

Yet the Beijing leadership is facing some significant milestones.  The 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China on July 1st  and the countdown to  the Autumn 2012 Party Congress in  Beijing have provided platforms for ramped up nationalist sentiments.   Pressing high octane patriotic themes such as China’s rightful role in the world offers a clear political payoff for factions political jockeying among  the  assertive security establishment as well as the CCP’s vocal Left Wing.

Beijing’s heated rhetoric combined with the PRC’s surge in naval power allows for geopolitical hubris  to view the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake.”   Conversely Washington stresses freedom of navigation, but given naval force cutbacks the U.S. is hard pressed to maintain a credible force profile in the Pacific. .

Singapore has  chastised China by saying that as a major trading nation, “Singapore has a critical interest in anything affecting freedom of navigation in all international sea lanes including those in the South China Sea.”

The ASEAN group offers the best collective defense for regional  states as to defuse this percolating political problem; the ten member  organization is  on record as favoring regional solutions.  ASEAN’s  political clout offers smaller states  a multilateral diplomatic response to Mainland China and can equally call upon  powers such as the United States.

Given that the Obama Administration is perceived to be  politically unsteady in East Asia, the PRC is  probing for weak resolve among regional states.  Should Beijing sense a power vacuum, be assured it will attempt to fill it.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.

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