By Perry Diaz
Long considered a body of water with no strategic or economic value, the South China Sea had been for millennia a “road” that nations used to trade their goods with other nations. Nobody laid claim to owning it. Except for small bands of pirates, no navies threatened the peaceful coexistence among the littoral communities and their giant neighbor, the Middle Kingdom or Zhonggou, as China was known then. Indeed, the South China Sea (SCS) was a perfect ecosystem that had thrived for a long time. Not anymore. What the hell happened?
There are a lot of things and events – including geopolitics – that contributed to the systematic destruction of the South China Sea’s ecosystem. But the most blatant act is China’s raping of the marine environment by changing the natural make-up of the islands, atolls, rocks, shoals, and sandbanks that dotted the SCS, particularly the Spratly archipelago. With China’s building of artificial islands in the Spratlys, the ecological balance in the SCS is altered forever, which begs the question: Why is China destroying this beautiful gift of nature?
China’s limited natural resources is driving her to go beyond her borders in search of the most important element to support her growing economy and population. Simply put, China doesn’t have enough oil and gas to fuel her economic engine and military machinery. According to the Chinese government’s forecast, her reliance on foreign crude oil this year would likely increase to 62%.
In 2015, China’s crude oil imports rose 8.8% from the previous year to 335.5 million tons [Source: China’s General Administration]. But the problem is: About 80% of that came from the Middle East and Africa through the Strait of Malacca. This is China’s Achilles’ heel. Known as the “Malacca Dilemma,” it is believed that China’s economy would implode if the U.S. blocked the choke points at both ends of the Malacca Strait and the Sunda and Lombok Straits in Indonesia.
In 2005, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo offered China and Vietnam a proposal – the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) – to jointly explore the South China Sea for oil and gas for three years. China grabbed the opportunity and even offered the Philippines low-interest loans for various infrastructure projects. All total, the Arroyo administration signed 65 bilateral agreements with China. But here’s the rub: About 80% of the JMSU site included parts of the Recto (Reed) Bank, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In 2008, the questionable deal created a firestorm of controversy. Critics of the JMSU called on the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional.
The JMSU was not renewed when it lapsed on June 30, 2008. The Philippines then explored the area around Recto Bank on her own. And for her part, China increased her presence in the Spratly archipelago and began harassing Philippine fishing boats, claiming sovereignty over the region. In 2012, China took de facto possession of the Scarborough Shoal, a territory of the Philippines. The following year, she started building artificial islands in the Spratlys.
Recently, China deployed surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets on Woody Island in the Paracels. The Chinese militarization of SCS had begun.
But there is one problem China has to tackle to gain de facto possession of the SCS: The United States wouldn’t allow her to control the SCS, which is one of the busiest — if not the busiest – shipping lanes in the world where US$5 trillion in trade passes through every year. It is not surprising then that China regards the SCS as a “core interest.” And just like her other core interests, Taiwan and Tibet, she considers the SCS as “non-negotiable.” However, the U.S. says that she, too, had a “national interest” in the freedom of navigation (FON) in the SCS.
U.S. President Barack Obama — who had played a pacifist hand in trying to convince China to back off – has turned around to challenge China’s aggressive attempt to convert the SCS into a “Beijing Lake.” Recently, the U.S. Navy conducted two FON operations in which an American guided-missile warship came within 12 miles of two of the reclaimed islands.
On February 25, 2016, the U.S. Navy dispatched a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) to the SCS. The CSG included the nuclear carrier USS John C. Stennis, two cruisers, two destroyers, and the 7th Fleet’s command ship, USS Blue Ridge. The deployment of the CSG was intended to show China that the U.S. is steadfast in her position of maintaining freedom of navigation in the SCS.
But what has become apparent is that the U.S. has started forging a quadrilateral strategic alliance – known as “security diamond” — that would protect the interests of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had said in 2012, the strategic alliance would “safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the Western Pacific.”
Recently, the U.S. deployed three B-2 nuclear-capable bombers to her military base in the Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean, which is within reach of India’s offshore territory, the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands, in the Bay of Bengal at the western end of the Strait of Malacca. It’s interesting to note that China had started showing maps that depict claims over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is reminiscent of the Chinese maps showing the SCS area bounded by the so-called “nine-dash line” as part of Chinese territory.
In the face of China’s attempt to project power in the Indian Ocean, what could be timelier than the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) between the U.S. and India, which they are expected to sign in April? The LSA would allow the two countries’ militaries to use each other’s land, air and naval bases for resupplies, repair and rest.
The U.S. is also negotiating with Australia to rotate B-1 bombers and aerial tankers at air bases in Darwin and Tindal. It is reported in the news that American officials are considering an expansion of B-52 bomber missions and positioning more U.S. military aircraft close to the disputed region. It would be of no surprise if these military assets would be prepositioned in the Philippines, which is now allowed under the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the U.S. and the Philippines.
And with the anticipated deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea and the recent rapprochement between South Korea and Japan, two of the U.S. major allies in Asia-Pacific, the envisioned “security diamond” is coming to fruition.
At the end of the day, with all of the geopolitical posturing and China’s warmongering, it is evident why China wants the SCS badly: she is in dire need of oil.