China’s agenda on the South China Sea dispute
The most troubling, confusing, complex, and disturbing geopolitical issue and problem today is the conflicting claims of some countries on the ownership of the South China Sea.
The 3.5 million square kilometers of waterway stretching from Indonesia to China is now seen as the hottest flashpoint where armed confrontation or war is most likely to happen. The five – countries, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei – could not agree on how they can resolve their overlapping claims. Steve Bannon, former security adviser of US President Donald Trump, confidently predicted that war on the South China Sea dispute will occur within the next five or ten years.
How did this critical and boiling issue come about?
How valid are the claims of the contending sovereign states?
Centuries ago, no country claimed ownership of any portion of the waterway because they didn’t even know if it existed. They didn’t have a name for it. It was only in the second quarter of the 20th century that Japan and China laid claims on the sea lane when they started quarreling with each other.
China now claims dominion over 80 percent of the entire South China Sea, on the basis of a historical and ancient record from the Xia and Han dynasties some 2,000 to 5,000 years ago. And in 1949, the Kuomintang government of China arbitrarily draw nine-dash lines near the seashores of the countries along the length of the waterway.
When the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS was promulgated in 1973, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei gained jurisdiction and implicit ownership of the waters within 200 miles from their shorelines.
China does not respect this dictum from an international forum. When the Philippines filed a suit with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 against China for occupying islands within its exclusive economic, China ignored the accusation.
When the Court, three years later, decided the case in favor of the Philippines, declaring that the nine-dash line was null and void, China did not honor the decision.
China, asserting its ownership of the entire South China Sea, started building military installations in the most strategic islands of the SCS. The Spratley Island, the biggest at the center of the sea lane, is now a veritable military outpost. The Paracels is now the headquarters of the agencies overseeing China’s presence and operations.
What is even more startling and paradoxical is Fiery Island which was not even there before. It was invented by reclamation.
China is now flexing its muscles, conducting naval operations and exercises round the clock to safeguard its increasingly heavy, advanced, and sophisticated military installations.
Now it demands that all ships entering the South China Sea must notify and seek its permission.
This is not only ridiculous but unacceptable to the United States. Its warships have been conducting military exercises at the SCS to the chagrin and irritation of Xi Jinping.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are distraught but they are bearing the humiliation with silent outrage.
The United States has been loud in denouncing the bullying tactics of China but hesitant to twist the tail of the Chinese bear.
Malaysia had been lately critical of China but rendered remorseful over the blandishments heaped on its previous administration. Brunei is too rich to be bothered by a dispute over a small stretch of a sea lane.
The Philippines has long kept quiet and acquiescent since President Rodrigo Duterte was befriended by Xi Jinping. Only Vietnam has shown belligerence and courage to confront China but the two always manage to bury the hatchet.
A military confrontation over the South China Sea is unlikely to happen in the immediate and near future.
What needs riveting concern is what the Chinese Communist Party really wants. What is the real motive or agenda of Xi Jinping?
Why is China acting arrogantly? Why does it defiantly ignore and refuse to honor the ruling of an international court when she had a part in its creation? Why is it not bothered by the possibility that the United States might intervene if the SCS goes up in flames?
The answer is clear and justifiable.
But most China watchers are looking at the wrong angle. They are looking at the implications and consequences of an armed confrontation. They ignore Xi Jinping’s real intentions. They are not interested in exploring China’s long-range ambitions. They are wary and paranoid of the CCP’s motivations.
The Chinese Communist Party wants China to have complete and unchallenged control and ownership of the South China Sea primarily to strengthen its defensive and offensive fortification. The military installations are meant to deter or discourage any other country or power from contesting its primacy over a strategic waterway which is vital to its economy, security and future. China is building a Great Seawall to complement its mainland its fabled Great Wall.
Xi’s mission is to establish China’s economic, military, and technological dominance at the center of the world.
Perceived to be realistic and pragmatic, the undisputed leader of China knows that he cannot establish political hegemony over China’s neighbors without resistance and opposition. Like Japan’s ambition to establish the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in World War II, any similar venture will be extremely difficult and will most probably end in failure.
He is aware that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the other countries of the free world will defend their freedom and independence at any cost.
Xi cannot ignore the valid and rightful share of Asean countries, of the billions of crude oil, the huge gas deposits, and the enormous marine resources beneath the South China Sea.
He cannot jeopardize the over 30 percent global trade passing through the SCS, completely denying other countries the freedom of navigation.
In many of his speeches before international audiences and his own people, Xi has eschewed expanding China’s territorial dominion by conquest or invasion. He has manifested willingness to resolve differences and conflicts through win-win formulas through bilateral negotiations. It is inconceivable for the wisest and most powerful leader of the world to undertake a suicidal mission.
The CCP is bent on surpassing the economic, military, and technological supremacy of America but will be open to settle differences and issues through face to face dialogues.
Xi’s ambitious agenda is to put China at the forefront in technological advances and innovations. Artificial intelligence and robotics are manifest in the workplace and other spheres of daily life in China. Some Chinese restaurants now employ feminine robots, more beautiful and engaging than celebrities, to serve their customers. The terrifying prospects of replicating a human being is no longer remote. Both the US and China have driverless vehicles.
The democratic countries and their wealthy businessmen make pious genuflections for the proletariat but hardly share their riches with the poor and the underprivileged. But the CCP amasses enormous funds and demands from its private billionaires to share their fortunes with 1.4 billion citizens.
The Belt and Road Initiative and the Sea Wall in the South China Sea have been designed to fulfill China’s grand ambition to be at the center of a peaceful and prosperous global community under a new and futuristic civilization.
Mr. Ernesto G. Banawis is a student of history and futuristics.
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