The warmongers will hate it but in the foreseeable future there’s a chance that China and its South East Asian neighbours will reach a peaceful settlement on development and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Ongoing discussion arising from a week-long Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial meeting in Manilla could result in a regional code of conduct to manage disputes without outside interference.
It’s a long road and undoubtedly there will be stumbles on the way but the current Manilla ministerial meeting offers a better prospect of resolving the issues than US, n and British military exercises in seas far from their shores.
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s statement last month that the United Kingdom would engage in warship exercises in the South China Sea was but one example of this confrontational and colonialist approach. (You have to wonder if Boris’ next plan is to insist on British rights to re-open the opium trade).
The South China Sea is about as far away from the British Western European islands as one could get.
Johnson said Britain would be sending its two new colossal aircraft carriers to the region “to vindicate our belief in the rules-based international system and in the freedom of navigation through those waterways which are absolutely vital for world trade.”
One wonders if Johnson has any idea where British interests lie.
Currently 44 per cent of British exports go to the European Union and 53 per cent of its imports come from the EU, a total of ??514.4 billion.
North America is by far its next biggest trading region, with the US and Canadian trade worth ??170 billion.
Some 70 per cent of Britain’s trade is with countries in its surrounding seas. So why send your only two aircraft carriers to the other side of the world to protect trade that is not threatened in the first place?
As many have pointed out, the last thing China would want to do is damage trade through its surrounding seas.
But that’s not to say there are no issues in the East China Sea or the South China Sea that could generate conflict. Fishing rights, environmental protection and of course oil and gas fields are all potentially hot issues.
Having Western warships and fighter planes roaming the region will not help resolve these matters.
Lately we have avoided major incidents between Western and Chinese naval vessels that could spark regional conflict.
But in 2001 a Chinese fighter pilot died after his plane hit a US Navy aircraft gathering intelligence just off the Chinese coast, 70 miles from Hainan Island.
Ironically the only lives lost recently have come from the collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel, the ACX Crystal, where seven US sailors died south of Tokyo Bay in the East China Sea.
ns will also well remember the June 1969 tragedy when the USS Frank E Evans crossed the bow of the aircraft carrier Melbourne during a training exercise in the South China Sea. Seventy four US sailors lost their lives.
Potentially the biggest prizes in the South China Sea will come from oil and gas discoveries.
Vietnam recently directed a subsidiary of a Spanish company Repsol to suspend drilling operations on a block in the Spratly Island region of the South China Sea after Chinese foreign ministry officials raised objections.
Much closer to Vietnam’s coast, ExxonMobil is planning development of the Blue Whale natural gas reserves in a region just outside the area historically claimed by China.
In the hope of confirming a huge gas field, the Philippines is also planning to drill in the Reed Bank region north of the Spratly Islands.
The new code of conduct could enable joint drilling and development of disputed blocks without anyone losing face and without costly conflict.
No matter how you try, you can’t get away from history when considering China’s claims and its disputes with surrounding states.
To most in , Okinawa in the East China Sea is recalled only as the scene of the largest US amphibian assault on Japan during WWII.
But it was once the capital of the Ryukyu kingdom which controlled the Ryukyu Islands running south of Japan and guarding the eastern Pacific approach to China.
Today the islands are considered part of Japan but for centuries the kingdom was a vassal state of China.
In 1879 when China’s military capability was no match for Japan, Japan unilaterally abolished the kingdom and incorporated Okinawa into Japan as a prefecture.
US emissaries early recognised the value of these islands with Commodore Matthew Perry, who famously used his cannon bearing Black Ships to forcibly “open” Japan to trade, argued in 1854 that the United States should establish a foothold in the Ryukyus to sustain US maritime rights in the east.
Japanese expansion saw it take Taiwan in 1895 in the first Sino-Japanese war, invade mainland China in 1931 and push on as far as New Guinea in the Second World War.
Today China is not claiming the Ryukyus, but it is claiming the Senkaku or Diaoyus rocky outcrops to their south which Japan annexed in 1895.
Further south, China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and even further south China maintains its historic claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
What is rarely mentioned these days in all the US talk about freedom of navigation is that Article 2 (f) of the WWII peace treaty signed between the allies and Japan on 8 September 1951 in San Francisco states: “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands.”
China was not represented at the San Francisco conference but the following year the Republic of China signed the Treaty of Taipei with Japan. This states: “Japan has renounced all right, title and claim to Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores) as well as the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.”
American maps produced before the US recognised Communist China as the “One China” (such as that printed by Encyclopaedia Britannica) clearly show the Paracel Islands marked as Chinese.
If the People’s Republic of China is the “One China”, then it surely follows that it has a strong claim over the Paracels.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines can mount strong claims for many islands, reefs, banks and rocky outcrops off their shores and will no doubt do so.
The ASEAN code of conduct will enable negotiations between these countries and China, and with goodwill and compromise on all sides the issues can be resolved peacefully.
Similarly, without provocative naval exercises, Japan and China should be able to negotiate a resolution to manage their disputed borders.