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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2704

SCS, proxy wars and Sri Lanka

By Janaka Perera

‘The enemy of your enemy is your friend.’ This old saying is reflected today in the precarious situation developing in the South China Sea. The possibility of it leading to a proxy war cannot be ruled out unless the tension building up in the region can be defused.

China continuing its construction of artificial islets off the disputed Spratly islands has become one of the bones of contention. South China Sea (SCS), as we know is home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes.

This region has become the cockpit geopolitics in East, as political observers have noted. It covers three million square kilometres, with many territorial disputes over a number of small islands, islets, rocks and reefs. The growing tension poses a threat to the region’s stability. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines have competing jurisdictional claims over rights to exploit the region’s extensive oil reserves and gas. The issue of navigation too has become contentious, particularly between China and the U.S. over the latter’s right to operate naval vessels to operate in China’s 200-mile economic zone.

Since the end of the Cold War alliances have changed for the better or worse depending on the situation circumstances have pushed a country into since the fall of the Soviet Bloc. The focus of the U.S. and its allies in the post-World War II years was ‘containing Communism’. Now American policy is ‘containing China.’

Beijing is conducting reclamation work at various maritime features in the SCS. Alleging that Beijing is attempting to change the legal status of such features the U.S. has declared that would be deploying naval vessels and aircraft near the elevations or rocks that China has turned into artificial ‘islands.’

In early April, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released an array of satellite images showing an airstrip of 3.1 kilometers completed around one-third in the Fiery Cross Reef, Spratly Archipelago. The CSIS claims that in comparison to the previous images taken, China has built two airstrips of 468 meters and 200 meters (nearing completion). These airfields can serve landing of almost all types of Chinese aircraft, according to aviation experts.

The New York Times in an April 17 news report quoting Prof. Peter Dutton, U.S. Naval College stated that such airstrips have adequate conditions for jet fighters and scouts to take off and land. China is in a position to install radars and missiles to threaten regional claimants like Vietnam and Philippines.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned earlier in an interview with AFP that Beijing’s territorial claims and acts in the East Sea may lead to military confrontations. According to him China’s ongoing construction of the two airstrips in the Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs, which legally belong to Vietnam, has raised Manila’s security concerns.

On April 15, the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Lubeck, Germany, adopted for the first time in nearly 40 years, a Maritime Security Declaration on the East and South China Seas. In its foreword, the Declaration emphasized, “We continue to observe the situation in the East and South China Seas and are concerned by any unilateral actions, such as large scale land reclamation, which change the status quo and increase tensions….”

The declaration has expressed strong opposition to any attempts to assert territorial or maritime claims through intimidation, coercion or force.

The Deputy Foreign Ministers of the U.S., Japan and South Korea (Republic of Korea) too expressed concerns after a meeting in Washington DC on April 16 about China acts which they alleged were moves to impose its sovereignty in the East Sea.

In this scenario the U.S. being drawn into a conflict between China and Vietnam is a possibility. (The last conflict the between the two countries was in 1979 when China invaded Vietnam after the latter’s troops helped to topple Cambodia’s brutal Pol Pot regime which was backed by Beijing).

According to Donald R. Rothwell of Australia’s ABC News, if the U.S. launches naval operations in the South China Sea it will involve a number of American warships to emphasize what they call ‘freedom of navigation’ within 12 miles of the islands China has claimed. The U.S. however has steadfastly refused to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which has a total of 166 signatories.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has suggested that Australian warships be deployed in the South China Sea to express opposition to China’s island-building activity in the disputed waterway.

The perception of some political observers on this issue is quite different. According to the World Socialist Website Washington is exploiting China’s longstanding territorial disputes with other countries in the SCS purely to America’s own advantage. It is encouraging the Philippines and Vietnam to aggressively assert their claims and forge closer relations with the U.S. and its allies, particularly Japan and Australia, states the WSW.

Australia has agreed to have a naval presence in the area but so far has given no indication it would join any U.S. naval operations in the region.

It is understood that Japan – which has its own disputes with China - is now providing Vietnam with warships at no cost since the Japanese Constitution prevents their Self Defence Forces from engaging in overseas military operations.

The Vietnamese today allege that China’s support during Vietnam’s liberation war was not genuine but intended at prolonging the conflict. Now the current territorial disputes in the SCS have pushed Vietnam closer to the U.S. the very country against which the Vietnamese fought a decade-long war over 40 years ago.

Vietnam is fortunate that the Americans have perhaps realised during the past several decades that non-interference in the former’s internal affairs is a better strategy to serve U.S. interests in the region, despite political and ideological differences between the two countries.

Many Sri Lankan students and intellectuals of global politics have their own views on China and the U.S. They are angered by the Washington’s double standards and sanctimonious humbuggery when they ‘advise’ selected countries and dictate terms on human rights and related issues, using the UN as a tool.

China has almost never meddled in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, compared to the roles India and U.S. have played in this country, especially since 1983.

China and Pakistan have been Sri Lanka’s all-weather friends. It was proven by the military assistance they gave SL during the anti-LTTE military operations with no questions asked. In 1952 (even before Sino-SL diplomatic ties were established) the Rubber-Rice pact signed with China despite strong U.S. opposition, was undoubtedly the most useful agreement Sri Lanka negotiated and one of the most successful and durable trade agreements in the world, when the island had to face a world shortage of rice.

Since the 1960s China has been among the countries defending Sri Lanka in the U.N. where the West has been moving resolutions against SL whenever her rulers ignored their ‘advice’.

Nevertheless in the current situation in SCS Sri Lanka will no doubt maintain strict neutrality considering the close ties with both China and Vietnam.

- Asian Tribune -

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