South China Sea is becoming Asia's most dangerous waters. Tensions are escalating between China and major Southeast Asian states over the Spratly Islands in South China Sea. Disputes could lead to grave instability in Asia.
Viewing from Southeast Asian capitals, Beijing is taking a very aggressive stance on its claims in the potentially oil and gas rich maritime area and China has initiated a series of provocations that could escalate further into a full-scale conflict.
The Spratly Islands, named after British mariner Richard Spratly, are part of a cluster of more than 650 islands, islets, reefs, cays and atolls in the South China Sea. Together, they comprise less than five square kilometers of land area, but spread over more than 400,000 square kilometers of sea. They are claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The area is now deemed by U.S. intelligence as one of the top flashpoint areas in the world.
The disputed islands are mostly uninhabited but include vital shipping lanes and major reserves of oil and gas. As CNN reports, "Chinese estimate suggests as much as 213 billion barrels of oil lie untapped in the South China Sea which, if true, would make it the largest oil reserve outside Saudi Arabia."
The competing claims in the South China Sea are nothing new: territorial assertions to the islands stretch back decades. But the dispute took center stage in recent months as Chinese patrol boats slashed cables of the survey ships operated by Petro Vietnam in late May and again in early June. Vietnam is not the only nation skirmishing with Chinese patrol boats, the Philippines is also angered by Chinese boats threatening to ram its survey ships. And in June alone, the Chinese Navy's South Sea Fleet has staged six military exercises in South China Sea.
Hanoi is publicly accusing China of "intentionally" attacking its ships inside Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. "The tension has fueled anti-Chinese sentiment across Vietnam," reports Joel Adriano of Manila Times, "with thousands taking to the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to protest Chinese naval operations in the disputed waters."
"Hanoi has no illusions about Beijing's readiness to provoke," says David Brown of Asia Times, "managing its unequal relationship with its northern neighbor is the core concern of Hanoi's foreign policy. To avoid war with the northern colossus, history suggests, the Vietnamese will kowtow but finally fight rather than capitulate."
China's risk-taking behavior also rattled the Philippines. The Philippines is officially protesting the Chinese "incursions." "If they attack us, we will fight back," announced General Eduardo Oban, Chief of Armed Forces of the Philippines, referring to "repeated" Chinese intrusions into the Philippines-claimed portion of the Spratly Islands.
What is more important, the Philippines is welcoming the U.S. to get back in Southeast Asia. As Al Labita, a Pilipino journalist, noted, "Manila is seeking American weaponry and assurances to keep China's 'gunboat diplomacy' in check. From waging a joint war against Islamic terrorists, the United States and Philippines now find themselves shifting to another battle front: checking China's provocations on the high seas. In what could be a prelude to an imminent face-off with China, American and Filipino naval forces are launching war games on June 28-July 8 off the coast of Palawan Province, west of Manila, near the hotly contested Spratly islands in the South China Sea."
To hedge against a more assertive China, not just Vietnam and the Philippines, but other Southeast Asian states are also turning to Washington. As John Mair of Reuters puts it, "Harsh rhetoric and occasional standoffs have long been part of the jousting over the contested South China Sea, but recently the incidents are more frequent and the complaints from Southeast Asian capitals about China's actions are much louder. The region cannot take on Beijing militarily, but nor do they want to roll over and lose territories near their coastlines. Internationalizing the dispute, including encouraging a U.S. presence in the sea, is one way to protect their interests."
Risks are growing in South China Sea. Incidents at high seas involving China and major Southeast Asian states are turning South China Sea into a "danger zone." Public and nationalist sentiment may force political leaders to adopt a more belligerent tone on the sea, further escalate into diplomatic crisis or even armed confrontation-not that any of the countries want to have a conflict, but a conflict of miscalculation, misapprehension and misperception.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.