Saturday, June 18, 2011

The South China Sea and learning to play the "Great Game"

Any unbiased glance at the map above might at least indicate that should the PRC's claims in the South China Sea be realised then we would have PLA troops practically within breaststroke distance of the Philippines and Malaysia. However, it is not the purpose of this piece to discuss the validity of the various rival claims in the South China Sea in general and on the Spratly Islands in particular and, even if  the interested reader might want to take a look at those claims. it is another question we should ask ourselves. How often are claims to territory resolved by force instead of peacefully?

With the People's Liberation Army Daily  commenting that China "resolutely opposes any country unrelated to the South China Sea issue meddling in disputes," and with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan "being encouraged by Washington to play a more assertive role in containing China", it is easy to discern what is happening. We might have a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, recently saying that China, "will not resort to the use of force or the threat of force," however, the United States is already upping the ante by using its military muscle to maintain its predominance in waters close to the Chinese mainland. Moreover, by allying itself to all the other parties in the dispute Washington not only has a ready-made coalition for any coming conflict in that particular region but with the John F Kennedy School of Government graduate, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, in power in Mongolia, and US military bases in every country on China's western borders, it will need some maverick diplomacy on China's part to move forward. That diplomacy might start with the Spratlys and some real compromise on Beijing's part would do a great deal to break Washington's stranglehold.

Of course, the oil and gas that are thought to be off the coast of the Spratly Islands, and which would help China fuel is growing economy, would be a high price to pay. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that a bit of "Realpolitik" on Beijing's part could have very serious repercussions for American power. China might have entered the "Great Game" but it will be interesting to see how it plays its cards.

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