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Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Meanwhile in the South China Sea...

Let’s move away from the quacking of the parliamentary duck pond for a moment to a different pond and a different quacking.

Imagine a line, moving from left to right and rising at a 45 degree angle. Now picture a second line starting below the first, also going from left to right but rising at a sharper angle. Then picture the point where the two lines intersect and draw a circle around it.

Finally label the first line as the US and the second line as China.

Now hold that thought as I whisk you away from your normal everyday setting to the tropical waters of the South China Sea.

If you have been paying any attention to international affairs (at least as it is described in the usual unfocused manner by the mainstream media) you may have noticed a series of articles over the last few years about the increasingly tense situation over various reefs in the South China Sea.

At first glance it seems like a simple case of good guys vrs the bad guys with the good guys being the US (supported by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore) and with China being the bad guy.

In this simple scenario the bad guys have taken over islands and reefs in the South China Sea and are building runways and air defense facilities, sparking angry reactions from the good guys, a ramping up of tension and a small naval arms race in the area. Chinese ships are ramming other nation’s vessels at sea and China is claiming all the area as their own under the so called "nine dash line".

In reality things are a bit more complicated and contain historical elements, international tensions, world trade, national ambitions and a solid dose of good old jingoism.

The best summaries of the situation can be found here and here provide a good picture of what’s going on up until now.

But recently things have taken a step up with China stealing a US naval underwater drone right from in front of the US navy and China's angry reaction to president elect Trump (illiterately) suggesting that the US might rethink the One China policy as well the related issue of him taking a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan which angered China no end.

So that's how it is with the "evil" Chinese doing no good and showing no sign of reducing their hard-line stance on claiming all of the area like they already own it.

On the flip side the US is just trying to ensure "freedom of navigation" in the area and has no ulterior motive for being there in the first place. Just like the good global citizen that it is. That's all it is.

Oh wait, no, both of those last two sentences are complete BS and actually there is a lot more going on.

To add to China's bad behavior you have the US with its pivot towards Asia and its China containment strategy both of which do little to ease the tensions and which are clear signals that the US perceives China as a threat more than a trade partner or anything else.

Add to that the shadow hacking war between the US and China (as well as other nations) and you have a situation that while not quite at flash point level is showing little signs of calming down or easing back.

Instead what is happening is a slow but gradual ramping up of tension in the region with both the major players making statements and posturing while the supporting actors taking steps to protect their interests or change sides (in the case of the Philippines sudden pivot towards China with the recent election tough guy president Duterte).

So why should we in NZ care, what does this matter to us?

Well for starters a lot of world trade, including ours, passes through there and shutting it down would have a disastrous effect.

Add to this the fact that the recent stink about China dumping steel in NZ and the angry reaction from China immediately after might have you wonder about how secure NZ's trading relationship with China is, free trade agreement or not.

Or more close to the point how about China's comments to NZ about this very issue where it basically told NZ to back off and shut up.

Add into this the precarious state of world shipping and what a restriction or closing off of this main artery of commerce would do not just to NZ trade but also the worlds (and if you have ever seen the Ghost Fleet of Singapore (like I did) and you will have an idea of exactly how difficult things could get.

Also NZ recently experienced a visit by a US naval ship*, ostensibly for the anniversary celebrations of what’s left of New Zealand’s navy but which in reality was a way of showing which side of the line NZ will stand (just like the 5 Eyes) on militarily matters (the questions about what our Navy should actually be doing instead of what it currently does can be asked for another time) should things ever get that serious

So let us see what we have so far.

Geopolitical tension, check. Intractable “historical” claims to territory (both the South China Sea and Taiwan), check. Aggressive action on the high seas, check. Naval arms race, check. Trade concerns, check. Multiple actors, check. Cold War style military posturing, check. Oil and gas reserves, check. Vital trade routes, check. Declining superpower vrs rising super power, check, check and check some more.

Now this does not mean that outright conflict is a certainty but the potential for a miscalculation and things to get even tenser (and possibly shootier) is a distinct possibility.

Tempering that though is the fact that such type of conflicts at sea are not as common as those on land and the only two related examples from modern military history (after World War Two) which spring to my mind are the Falklands War and the Cod War but in both of those cases it was not two superpowers facing off over a powder keg of geopolitical issues.

And this is where we get back to our mental picture of lines from the start of this post. That circle around the point where the two trajectories cross is the space or period of time where the potential for conflict or war is high as the power of the faster rising nation match and then eclipse the slower and guess where we are right now?

Of course I will be the first to admit that such a diagram and hypothesis is very first year Pol Sci with its rather loose take on International Relations.

But it’s not that China nor the US have not fought a wars before (Korea was outright while Vietnam was a proxy), or China has not had lots of border skirmishes of a similar kind with Vietnam (its blunder into Vietnam in 1979 ostensibly proved their point and checked potential Vietnamese expansion in the wake of their victory in the Vietnam War but in reality they bit off more than they could chew and were driven back with heavy losses) or India and Russia.

The point being that in proximity to its borders and the defense thereof the Chinese are not afraid to take things to a military level and start shooting and while a full scale war is unlikely a short sharp burst of fire might be just the thing to enforce the issue and see the US off.

Nor is it the last time in more recent memory that the US and China have sparred in such fashion (the EP3 incident in 2001 or when Bill Clinton sailed a carrier battle group through the Taiwan straitto counter Chinese aggression towards Taiwan in 1996*** spring to mind) so the recent snatching of the underwater drone is just one in a long line of acts towards each other and others (China’s recent bullying of Singapore by holding a shipment of APCs it purchased in Hong Kong).

But then the US is not blameless in this as while China lost in the Courts over its historical claims to the area the US is not even a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its containment policy of China is a clear attempt to thwart any expansion of its blue water naval capability and possibly cut its supply lines in the event of actual conflict****.

For us living in NZ all of this may still seem remote but the potential for conflict is not.

The US under Trump may feel assertive enough to make a point of this (although Trump appears to have already backed off his One-China comments now) and there are other actors in this (like Vietnam and Japan) who don’t have the luxury of watching at a distance as China gains control of vital territory, resources or trade routes who might just decide that they can’t sit back on the issue and end up dragging the US in when they decide to take action.

And while we live in an age where such things are rare and many people have used the argument that given all the trade China does with the world it would be foolish to think that they would risk all that just over some reefs please keep in mind that the 100 years of peace that Britain had between 1815 and 1914 were prefaced on similar arguments which did not stop the rest of the planet from having wars, or Britain embarking on its own colonial wars or its own step into the abyss in 1914.

And while Aleppo may be getting more attention at the moment this has all the potential to effect us quicker and more directly than the grim end to that siege and its human crisis. 

So while we may return to vicarious speculating about the 2017 elections in NZ pay at least some mind to what’s going on over the horizon because while it may not register much in the local media or scratch your particular political itch does not mean it is not an important or vital issue or that it wont have an effect on you***** if things get heavy.

*-China was invited to send a ship and looks like it sent one but they also sent one of these as well. Also when you compare the publicity one got compared to the other imagine which side NZ would be on if forced to choose.

**- both do not exactly fit the situation but there is enough of a parallel to make comparison

***-Although China now has a means to counter such a play with a very large anti-ship missile which the US may now have the countermeasure for

****-Which is why China is now building a massive part in Burma to connect it to the Indian Ocean without having to pass through the South China Sea or the bottleneck of the straights of Malaca (Singapore and Malaysia)

*****- I hope I have illustrated through all the links I have used to show that it is on many peoples radars in many different ways.

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