Since the international spotlight focused on the South China Sea two years ago, tension in the region has refused to ebb. At dispute are the conflicting claims to sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratly archipelagos which have oil, natural gas and other natural resource reserves estimated at over US$ 28 billion.
US re-entering the area since 2010, and the steadily growing Indo-US ties, have drawn India into this dispute. China has used the dispute to put its neighbours, who have conflicting territorial claims, on notice.
A series of events have occurred since early this month reflecting the differing perspectives on the international status of the South China Sea, especially between the US and China. China’s actions this time coincided with US Defence Secretary Panetta’s visit to Delhi and presence in Beijing of India’s External Affairs Minister, who traveled there to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. The agenda for both events featured maritime issues. While Panetta spoke of the US ‘pivot’ and planned increased deployment of US Navy ships in the region, the SCO agenda this time featured extensive sea-based counter-terrorism exercises.
Both events coincided with the four week-long stand-off between the Philippines and Beijing on their claims to sovereignty over the Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea -- called Panatag or Bajo de Masinioc by the Philippines and Huangyan Islands by China.
Till last week vessels of the Philippines and China faced-off around Scarborough Reef. The Philippines adopted a tough stance predictably provoking a strong, but calibrated, Chinese response.
Beijing allowed the China-owned and controlled official media to be strident in its condemnation of the Philippines and demand military action. This was reinforced by the sizeable numbers of nationalistically-inclined Chinese ‘netizens’. Particularly in the first two weeks of May, China’s ‘Sina Weibo’ was awash with calls for punitive military action against the Philippines and the postings were not deleted.
Simultaneously, in a move reminiscent of China’s action against Japan in 2010, when it banned the export of vital rare earth minerals, Beijing on this occasion too flexed economic muscle. It suddenly prohibited the import of bananas from the Philippines citing phyto-sanitary considerations.
Valued at $75 million, China is the second largest market for bananas for the Philippines with more than 200,000 jobs dependent on it. Within weeks, Beijing prohibited the import of pineapples and papayas giving the Philippines’ economy a further shock. Beijing’s actions undoubtedly pushed Manila to withdraw its ships from Scarborough Reef citing adverse weather conditions. Days later China withdrew its vessels.
In the midst of these developments, the China-owned and Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao on June 2, published a toughly-worded article captioned ‘Why not launch a ‘self-defence’ counter-attack War for the South China Sea’.
Written by Shih Chun-yu, who often writes on India-related topics, the article asserted that China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea is being questioned. Identifying the Philippines as having adopted the most hardline stance, it urged China to make it ‘pay the price for its behaviour’.
It added: ‘if such powers as the United States, Japan, and India felt that China also dared to “take real action” they would think before they decided to make a profit in the troubled waters of the South China Sea’. The tone of this article echoed the warnings issued to Japan and India by China’s official media in 2010.
However, motivated by tactical considerations of preventing India from being drawn in to a US-fashioned concert of powers to contain China, the Ta Kung Pao article was tempered by the action of the Chinese Navy earlier this month.
As four Indian Navy ships, including the indigenously-built stealth frigate ‘Shivalik’ (F-47), left the Philippines en route to South Korea, a Chinese Navy frigate said: “Welcome to the South China Sea, Foxtrot-47,” and stayed alongside the Indian ships for a few hours.
Other developments nonetheless clearly indicate that tensions are unlikely to dissipate as China strives to ‘recover’ sovereignty over these islands. Pressure on India will increase. At a recent seminar in Beijing, Chinese strategists outlined Beijing’s ambitions in the region. They said: ‘China must gradually and gently force the United States to accept China’s status in Asia and its strategic status as a military power in the world’.
Separately, General Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of General Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), told Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, that China has the ability to defend its waters, but is not yet prepared to use military force. Military force, he said, will be the last resort and only after bilateral talks, diplomacy and civilian law enforcement measures fail. Most recently, on June 21, China again pushed the envelope and established the Three Sands City prefecture to administer the Paracels, Spratly and Scarborough Reef.
‘China perceives India as a factor in South China Sea dispute’ - Analysis - DNA