Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Military Impact of South China Sea Dispute on ASEAN Countries

Some international strategist has said that if ever there is any large-scale war happened in this world again, then it is likely that such a war will happen in the South China Sea. But not many people believe it and said it is an exaggerated prediction.
In the past, the Southeast Asian region could still be considered as a peaceful region and the South China Sea is still considered as a calm and quiet piece of ocean.
Sovereignty of Islands and Maritime Boundaries
Although there are some small islands and some small reefs in the South China Sea whose territorial rights and maritime boundaries no country can clearly define, but countries, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei have all come forward to claim the 'sovereignty' of these islands and maritime boundaries and in wanting to protect such maritime territorial rights.
Nevertheless, in 2002, the countries involved in the sovereignty disputes of islands in the South China Sea have at least reached an agreement to say that no country should use military power as a solution to end the dispute of the territorial rights to these islands. These countries also said they would jointly develop the marine resources in the South China Sea.
New Challenge
Under the premise of 'peaceful development,' although all countries involved in the sovereignty disputes over the islands in the South China Sea are unwilling to give up their 'sovereignty' on these islands, but they also do not want to involve in some kind of conflict or confrontation with one another. As such, in the past years, countries involved in the South China Sea conflicts could still basically keep peace with one another.
But the situation in the South China Sea has since changed. Facing new challenge and new impact, the balance of peace achieved by these countries in the past might eventually lose the needed balance of peaceful coexistence.
In the first place, the world natural resources are getting less and less. As such, to each and every nation, natural resources have also become more and more precious to them. For countries to sustain and advance in economic development, they have to depend on new energy resources to sustain their economic growth. Since the South China Sea is rich in oil and gas resources, countries surrounding the South China Sea can no longer control or hide their desire in wanting to carry out their respective oil exploration projects in wanting to extract the rich oil and gas resources in South China Sea instead of waiting for the day when all can jointly develop the rich natural resources there as agreed upon earlier.
Second, in the past, the national strength and ability of countries surrounding the South China Sea were limited. These countries did not have the strength to handle their respective domestic affairs let alone extending their national power to the far away ocean.
However, today, China's rapid economic growth has driven its military expansion. In addition to adding warships, fighter jets, submarines, missiles, China has also added aircraft carrier to its list of military equipment making it a major sea power. Making effort to strengthen its military force, China's sense of fighting spirit has also been uplifted. The voice of China's domestic hawkish camp is on the rise as day goes by. To China's hawkish group, the South China Sea is but an inland sea belonging to China and as such the South China Sea must be under the control of China.
Earlier this year, when China launched a massive military exercise in the South China Sea, the countries in the Southeast Asian region have already shown their concern over such a massive military exercise carried out by China.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries have indeed felt the pressure of the expanded military power of China. In response, all ASEAN countries also began to increase their respective military budget, to purchase more military equipment and weapons. They begin to carry out military procurement race.
In the end, the original consensus to maintain peace and balance of power in the South China Sea region has entered a state of precarious balance with new friction emerging in the South China Sea water one after another.
Long-Embedded Confrontation
In May 2011, some patrol officers from China's patrol ship forcibly cut broken the cables of Vietnam's oil exploration ship. This incident has triggered serious argument between Vietnam and China and led the two sides entering a deadlock argument over such maritime conflict in the South China Sea. After the confronting incident between the vessels from the two countries, the Chinese and Vietnamese Governments have also begun to accuse the other side for provocation and for creating issue with each other. The incident has also set off protests from the civil society in both the countries.
Of note is that between China and Vietnam, these two countries have long-embedded confrontational and rival sentiment toward each other. For a long period in the past, Vietnam and China have considered each other as potential adversaries. As such, once these two countries come out with any kind of conflict and dispute, it can easily get out of control.
For this reason, the2002 consensus agreed upon by countries in the South China Sea region in not wanting to use military means to resolve the sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea might come out with possible variables.
Significant Military Influence
However, because of the military strength of ASEAN countries can never match that of China's military power, ASEAN countries understand that they cannot engage in direct military confrontation with China.
The present situation in the South China Sea is conducive to US intervention. After the United States withdrew its major military base in the Philippines, the United States has lost significant military influence in the Southeast Asian region. But today, due to the shift in global geopolitical environment, major powers have again reexamined the strategic importance of this part of the world. In this regard, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore are countries that have expressed their positive desire to welcome the reentering of US military power to the South China Sea.
In the coming days, the United States and China are bound to twist their military arms to compete with each other in the South China Sea. In the end, what smaller countries surrounding the South China Sea can do in addition to taking or choosing sides to move closer either toward China and the United States, is, to hope for the best.

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