South China Sea tensions rise as Hague ruling approaches

The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, which US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited as it was ploughing through the South China Sea. US Navy

By Loke Hoe Yeong

As the Permanent Court of Arbitration looks set to deliver its ruling on the Philippines’ contestation of China’s claims over the South China Sea, now set for 12 July, tensions over the region are rapidly rising.

This week, China is carrying out military drills around the Paracel Islands, north of the South China Sea region. Yesterday (7 July), officials of the US Navy stated that their destroyer USS Ronald Reagan, and its escort ships, have been patrolling the areas around the Spratly Islands, which lie south of the South China Sea region, particularly around reefs and maritime features that are held by China.

The US destroyers were on patrols within 14 to 20 nautical miles of those maritime features occupied by China.

Lieutenant Clint Ramsden, spokesman for the US’s Pacific Fleet, said that “all of these patrols are conducted in accordance with international law and all are consistent with routine Pacific Fleet presence throughout the Western Pacific.”

Meanwhile on Wednesday (6 July), China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi phoned his US counterpart, John Kerry, and warned the US to “take no actions that harm China’s sovereignty and security interests”, and said the US should keep to its commitment not to take sides in the South China Sea dispute.

This presents one of the most direct forms of protestation China has made to the US regarding the South China Sea dispute.

What is really at stake for China here?

“This is a matter of wider significance than the South China Sea,” said Bilahari Kausikan, ambassador-at-large of Singapore, in an interview with the New York Times. China is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which constituted the basis of the Philippine’s case against China that it filed at the Hague court.

“The importance of the issue is whether international rules will be obeyed,” Kausikan added. China “cannot pick and choose which rules to follow or only comply when convenient.”

There are other issues of importance on the South China Sea too, at least for China.

“One Belt, One Road”: the reason for all the angst behind the South China Sea?

Much has been made of the overland route of China’s “One Belt, One Road” project, which seeks to mirror the ancient Silk Road connecting China with European capitals.

A key focus of this overland route has been on a high-speed rail route connecting Singapore to Kunming. While this phase of the project has naturally seen its fair share of obstacles, there have been dreams being articulated of a rail route that could then link Singapore all the way to London, via Kunming.

But the sea route part of this ambitious project, the so-called Maritime Silk Road, is equally important for China, if lesser known. It would connect China’s east coast port cities to Colombo in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Greece’s Piraeus, ending in Venice.

What stands in the way of this Maritime Silk Road – right after one sets off from eastern China – is of course the South China Sea.

China’s President Xi Jinping announced the “One Belt, One Road” initiative in 2013, as a key policy of the central government to connect with 65 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe through land and sea routes.

Much of this was motivated by China finding its domestic economy under strain, after three decades of phenomenal growth.

The Chinese government wants to double income levels by 2020, using the year 2010 as the base. China has been making a major effort to transform its economy from an export-driven one to a more services- and domestic consumption-oriented one. It also wants to wean itself away from its labour- and energy-intensive manufacturing base, and move towards a more high-value economy.

To do so, connectivity would be key for China.

Some observers have therefore read China’s fixation with its claims in the South China Sea as the result of its fear of losing hold over its vital sea trade routes. This is where China feels its naval prowess needs to be built up, in order to have the sort of naval infrastructure to protect its commercial shipping interests from the South China Sea to Djibouti, the country at the Horn of Africa, where China has established its first overseas military base announced earlier this year in March.

Djibouti commands a strategic position at the southern opening to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. This is where 30% of the world’s shipping pass nearby.

China will purportedly station a few thousand troops and staff at its Djibouti overseas military base, which will be the first-ever overseas deployment of Chinese troops on a permanent basis.