The Asian drums of war

Es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions over China’s dom­i­nance of the South China Sea could spell dis­as­ter for coun­tries us­ing the wa­ter­way to ac­cess global mar­kets

CityPress - - Voices - Moeletsi Mbeki voices@city­press.co.za

The brew­ing con­flict re­gard­ing own­er­ship over the South China Sea could bring the South African econ­omy to its knees if it turned into an open war. To­day China is South Africa’s largest trad­ing part­ner. All our trade with China has to pass through the South China Sea. The area is one of the most im­por­tant wa­ter­ways in the world to­day. It is es­ti­mated that 40% of all global trade passes through the re­gion. South Africa’s min­eral ex­ports to China, Ja­pan and South Korea must pass through the South China Sea to reach their des­ti­na­tions.

Mil­i­tary con­flict over the South China Sea would there­fore ad­versely af­fect the economies of Africa, the Mid­dle East and South Asia, as well as trade with Europe and South Amer­ica.

Re­spond­ing to a bar­rage of ques­tions at the 15th Asia Se­cu­rity Sum­mit, held in Sin­ga­pore last week­end, China’s Ad­mi­ral Sun Jian­guo stressed that his coun­try con­sid­ered most of the South China Sea to be part of Chi­nese ter­ri­tory.

“South China Sea has been Chi­nese ter­ri­tory since an­cient times,” said Ad­mi­ral Sun, who headed the Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion at the nearly 3 000-strong an­nual con­fer­ence.

The ad­mi­ral is also deputy chief of joint staff at the all-pow­er­ful Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Com­mis­sion of the Com­mu­nist Party of China, which is chaired by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping.

The con­fer­ence, known as the Shangri-La Di­a­logue, is or­gan­ised an­nu­ally by Lon­don-based think-tank the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies. It brings to­gether de­fence min­is­ters and their del­e­ga­tions from North Amer­ica, north­east and south­east Asia, as well as south Asia – in all, rep­re­sent­ing more than half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion.

China’s claim to the South China Sea is con­tested by sev­eral coun­tries in south­east Asia, es­pe­cially Viet­nam and the Philip­pines. Both en­joy the strong sup­port of the US gov­ern­ment, which was rep­re­sented at the con­fer­ence by De­fence Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter.

The Philip­pines gov­ern­ment has taken the dis­pute to the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion at The Hague in the Nether­lands.

This ef­fort was roundly de­nounced by Ad­mi­ral Sun, who said dis­putes of the South China Sea must be dis­cussed bi­lat­er­ally be­tween China and each con­tes­tant.

South­east Asian coun­tries claim that China is in breach of in­ter­na­tional law, es­pe­cially the UN Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea.

The US and other coun­tries, on the other hand, ar­gue that China is threat­en­ing free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in what they see as an open ocean.

Carter em­pha­sised that the US had the mil­i­tary mus­cle to pro­tect free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion in the South China Sea. In a thinly veiled threat to China, he said his coun­try “has mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties that will take decades to match”.

His po­si­tion was echoed by France’s Min­is­ter of De­fence, JeanYves Le Drian, who said his coun­try pe­ri­od­i­cally sent war­ships into the South China Sea to demon­strate France’s com­mit­ment to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion glob­ally.

“If the law of the sea is not re­spected in China seas, it will not be re­spected else­where,” he said.

The con­tend­ing par­ties agreed on one thing at least: that the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion has be­come the most dy­namic econ­omy in the world, pro­duc­ing about half of the global gross domestic prod­uct.

The re­gion, how­ever, is plagued by a num­ber of threats. Th­ese in­clude the de­vel­op­ment of nu­clear weapons and bal­lis­tic mis­siles by North Korea; the spread of rad­i­cal Is­lam, which threat­ens many coun­tries; nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in the form of earth­quakes, tsunamis and hur­ri­canes; and the threat of global warm­ing. Mbeki is deputy chair­per­son of the SA In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs, an in­de­pen­dent think-tank based at Wits Univer­sity. He is co-au­thor of A Man­i­festo for So­cial Change: How to Save South Africa

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