The simmering bickering over the South China Sea in the recent past is gravely concerning as parties match words with action. Military exercises showcasing the lethal arsenals of global powers is not what the world wants to witness at this time. The diatribes between the United States and China call for caution. In the first week of October 2020 Michael Pompeo, US Secretary of State reeled out a string of warnings: “We are making it clear… “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them… The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire”.
Earlier in July, China accused the US of “sailing through the world like a bully”. Sequel to the despatch of two US aircraft – carrier groups, the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan to sail past the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in what the US terms freedom of navigation operations in the region. China also called the US ” a trouble maker and destroyer of regional peace.” Again, in August the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet said in a statement that the USS Mustin, a guided-missile destroyer sailed ” in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands”. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) countered by launching its military exercises involving the Navy and Air Force. In the process, China Airforce planes intercepted a US U2 spy aircraft. Later it accused the US ship of entering “China’s territorial waters near the Paracels without authorisation.”
On August 19, 2020, China launched two missiles into the South China Sea apparently in a show of force and warning to the US to stay out of the region. One of the missiles a D – 26 is designated an “aircraft – carrier killer”. The other rocket, a D – 21, is also believed to be no less dangerous. At a time the US Navy and Chinese military are conducting military exercises simultaneously around the Paracel and Spratly Islands amid threats from both sides, tensions have heightened. The rising tension portrayed is viewed as ominous signs on the horizon.
On October 8, 2020, as the USS John McCain, another missile guided destroyer entered disputed waters around the Paracel Islands, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army spokesman accused the US of carrying out … “naked navigational hegemony and military provocation. We demand the US immediately stop such provocative actions,(and) strictly control and restrict military operations in the sea and air to avoid accidents.” The US still emphasise that it’s Navy’s activities are legitimate. They further state that these have been on-going for decades, and also aimed at “defying China’s claims in the strategic waterway”.
Five disputing nations
Essentially, the South China Sea in the Pacific, is a water body, 180,000 sq km in size to which five other countries – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Taiwan – also lay claim. China also clashed with Indonesia over fishing rights in the same waters. Chinese claims to the entire region as the sole owner is the crux of the latent controversy. No doubt the area is of geo-strategic significance: it is home to crucial shipping lanes for international trade worth trillions of dollars annually; is known to possess about 11 billion barrels of untapped crude oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas underneath its sea bed; it is also famous for its lucrative commercial fishing enterprise.
At issue are two island groups: the Spratlys and the Paracels. Both were of little or no significance until the 1970s when exploration firms discovered vast deposits of oil and gas.
The Paracel Islands
The Paracel Islands, also known as Xisha islands and Hoang Sa Archipelago consists of a group of 130 small coral islands and reefs in the northern South China Sea. The islands grouped into Northeast Amphitrite and Western Crescent. They situate at about 250 miles (400 km) from central Vietnam and 220 miles (350 km) south of Hainan Island, China. Both countries have legitimate claims to the islands as stipulated by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). None of them exceeds 1sq mile (2.5 sq km) in size and is mostly barren without fresh water. The islands have no human habitation due to lack of economic activities. However, China, Taiwan and Vietnam all lay claim to the Paracels on the grounds of proximity.
The Paracels cover 15,000 sq km of the ocean surface and 7.75 sq km of the land surface. Vietnam inherited a weather station from the French who annexed the Archipelago after Japan renounced claims to it after WW ll. The discovery of oil in 1974 brought foreign oil prospecting companies under Vietnamese sponsorship. China reacted by invading the islands from the air and sea, captured the weather station and took the crew prisoners, and has since assumed full control. By 2014 China had over 1000 of its citizens settled on the disputed islands.
The Spratly Islands
The Spratly Islands comprises 12 primary islets located between Vietnam and the Philippines and Malaysia in the southern part of the South China Sea. China, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia all lay claim to the islets. Underneath the seabed lie vast reserves of unexploited oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Archipelago served as a submarine base for the Japanese Navy during WW ll. With the defeat of Japan in 1945, she renounced claims in 1951. A year later that China stationed a garrison of troops on Itu Aba, the largest of the islets. In 1952, disputant nations declared rights to ownership of the Archipelago, and in 1955 the Philippines acted in the same vein on the grounds of proximity.
As with the Paracels, the discovery of oil also attracted renewed interest from all disputants. Vietnam annexed the islands and incorporated them into its Phuoc Tuy Province in 1973, and sent in oil prospecting companies. China’s reaction was to assert a total claim over the Spratlys and declare the whole occupation of the Paracels to the north. Vietnam’s moved further to annex three of the islands, including Spratly, the fourth largest of the islets to avert Chinese occupation. To date, troops from Taiwan remain on Itu Aba. The Philippines moved its forces into the seven remaining islets and in 1976 built an airstrip on Pagasa island. Malaysia occupies Turubu Layang – Layang reef and all other claimants have continued to maintain conflicting claims to the Spratly Islands with each of them having military garrisons on their territories.
Formidable Fiery Cross
By far the most militarised of the Spratlys is Fiery Cross island occupied by China. Also known as Northwest investigator Reef (note: not Northwest investigator Shoal) is occupied by People’s Republic of China (PRC) as part of Sansha District of Hainan Province. China settled it in 1987 after a severe conflict with Vietnam. In 2014 China stationed 200 troops there. The number increased significantly in 2015 when China sent in support personnel for the construction of a new airfield. With a – 3,125 metre – long (1.9 mile) long runway and an associated early warning radar station in place, it is the most equipped militarily in the entire Archipelago.
As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies put it, Fiery Cross is “the most advanced of China’s bases” in the disputed South China Sea islands. The airstrip is equipped “with 12 hardened shelters with retractable roofs for mobile missile launchers.” Besides, there are “enough hangars to accommodate 24 combat aircraft and four larger planes… Fiery Cross reef has a runway long enough to land a Chinese Xian H – 6N bomber; a bomber like this could perform combat operations within 5,600 kilometres (3,500 miles) of the reclaimed reef.” Added to the Air Force facilities are a submarine base and numerous surface warships.
The preceding make clear that the PRC and Taiwan are two countries with historical claims to sovereignty over the Spratly islands based on Law of the Sea Convention and the controversial Nine-Dash Line established in 1940. The Philippines also assert legitimate claims over parts of the Islands citing United Nations Conventions on Law of the Sea, UNCLOS agreements ratified by disputants.
In fairness to the US, her Navy has been active in this area for several decades. I recall that it was from here General McArthur leap-frogged with his troops from the Philippines to the Indian Ocean before the defeat of Japan in WW II. Besides, it has been the sea route to the US Naval base in Guam.