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
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