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Provocation and posturing in the South China Sea

In past centuries the haunt of pirates, opium traders and would-be colonialists, the South China Sea has begun to boil again. The US has joined a chorus of protests from Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, as China continues to build artificial islands in disputed waters.

Over the past two years, Chinese engineers have constructed about 1,200ha of new land, much of it designed to host military facilities, while the People’s Liberation Army Navy has moved HQ-9 long-range, surface-to-air missiles onto one of the disputed Paracel Islands. In response, the US has continued to sail warships through the channel to enforce what it believes is its right to freedom of navigation. The UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea allows nations to claim waters within 200 nautical miles of any occupied islands.

The region is a critical one for the flow of international shipping, and it is China’s lifeline. Forty per cent of China’s international trade, and 80 per cent of its energy imports go through the South China Sea. The surrounding countries all claim lucrative fishing rights.

Last month, Indonesia summoned China’s ambassador to explain the standoff that occured when a Chinese coastguard vessel blocked an attempt to arrest the crew of a Chinese fishing boat. The Philippines has referred the wider dispute to an international arbitration court in The Hague, which is expected to issue a ruling by the middle of the year, but China has refused to recognise the tribunal’s jurisdiction.

Shao Zheng, counsellor at the Chinese embassy in London, defended China’s rights to build on the islands that it claims, saying that it is “the same as if [the US] builds on Hawaii”.

South China Sea

A Filipino diplomatic source said that the sheer speed and scale of the programme of militarisation was disturbing every country in the region, and undermining efforts to reach a negotiated solution.

China’s relationship with its neighbours has often been rocky, but its economic strength and its investments across the region give it diplomatic clout. That could be undermined by the ongoing dispute, according to Feng Zhang, an expert at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

“Beijing will not be concerned, because they think their economic pole is quite strong and they can somehow separate the two areas,” he says. “But from Southeast Asian nations’ perspective… their enthusiasm for cooperation with China will to some degree be dampened by the security situation.”

Ring of fire

Standoffs in the South China Sea before have degenerated into shooting – in 1988, the Vietnamese and Chinese navies fought a pitched battle over the Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands. As tensions rise, regional powers are arming themselves again.

Between 2011 and 2016, Vietnam’s arms imports jumped by nearly 700 per cent, compared with the previous five-year period, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In February, Australia announced a A$30 billion (£16.1 billion) lift in defence spending. Indonesia has also commissioned new submarines to patrol its waters. The risk of an accident is growing, warns Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI.

“I think the most difficult thing right now is [that] with more weapons getting around, and more and more assertive policies from the claimants, you get more and more chances of the countries meeting at sea or in the air,” he says. “And they don’t know exactly how to deal with each other.”