Who owns what?

A perspective on the current Asian flashpoint

Recently, world news organizations such as CNN, BBC, Reuters and AFP returned their lenses to Asia. Nope, not to report on Asia’s continuing rise as an economic powerhouse again, but rather to a more ballooning event that may turn the lives of the billions of people of this ancient continent and perhaps the whole world itself.

Allies’ Meeting in Washington (L-R) Philippines Secretary of Defence Voltaire Gazmin and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto Del Rosario with their US counterparts Secretary of Stare Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta during the recently-concluded 2+2 meeting in response to the sensitive situation in the South China Sea.

China and most of the ASEAN nations have been locked for decades with territorial disputes. However, in most recent times, China – the now powerful country not only of military and economic might – has asserted itself in a more aggressive stance. Far from its little claims here and there, China now claims the whole of the South China Sea as a part of its territory.
Simple analogy to an absurd claim: if it is true, then Malaysia and Brunei will have to forget that there are waters to their north. The Philippines only has the Pacific Ocean to its right as its waters and Vietnam is practically left with nothing but the Mekong River. Nothing on or under the South China Sea is theirs, according to the Chinese claim. Not even the international sea lanes that once saw peaceful times long before China became powerful again and realized that it has now the ability to throw itself around. Bad news for all: the Indian Ocean has pirates; soon the South China Sea will have the mighty naval hardware of Red China’s Navy.
Back in the 80s, China and Vietnam had a little war over some islands–the Spratlys–that both countries were claiming. As much as Vietnamese ships were sunk and sailors died, China realized that its fellow Communist country wouldn’t easily give way and immediately backed down. In the 90s, China sent its warships again to the same area, this time against the Philippines, after the latter ordered its version of the US Navy Seals to search and destroy structures that were built by the Chinese on some islands in the disputed area. With far less naval power but much more international influence, the shout for help so to speak by the Philippines to the rest of the world, was more than enough for China to recall its ships. Lest they suffer negative world opinion that would go directly against their rebuilding efforts as a renewed country poised for an economic turnaround.
However, these events are now ages ago. Now, China is the all-powerful country flexing its muscles left and right with the power of money. With so much cash to spend, it is now literally buying allies and at least keep those against them at bay. It gives no credence to world opinion now since it practically owns the world. Check the items that surround your everyday life and most of it will have the same thing written under: Made in China. Yes, some may say that China’s military might is still far from what the United States of America has in its arsenal. But China has money to fund a war – one thing that the US doesn’t have so much lately.
Slowly and surely, China has begun efforts to assert its claim. The Paracel Islands is not a strategic place to start with as much as it is the closest to them, for it is only co-claimed by a country that is considerably theirs – Taiwan, and therefore that can be settled later. On the other hand, the Spratlys is rather complicated to begin with as it is claimed by numerous nations. And with oil and gas deposits recently confirmed in the area, an aggressive and abrupt claim to it will invite big trouble. Those resources are more than enough reasons for warships to be sent not only by the countries claiming it, but also by the US who, for the sake of those resources, will suddenly invoke its 60-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines and get into the fray. A scenario that China doesn’t want – yet.
And so, the Scarborough affair began. With only the once naval superpower of East Asia back in the 50s but now ill-equipped Philippines as its opponent, the Scarborough Shoal is the perfect staging point for the grander scheme later on. The Chinese did the numbers; they’re good at it anyway. For China, it is the rich fishing grounds that it badly needs to feed its population’s endless appetite for seafood and then again, it’s staging point. For the Philippines, on top of the shoal being a traditional fishing area of its fishermen, it is also a matter of logical sovereignty. How could something that is more than 400 nautical miles from China’s nearest land area and on the contrary, practically a stone throw’s away from the Philippine main island of Luzon be China’s territory? And what’s in it for the US? Without confirmed vast natural resources that it will eventually need, nothing.
Without crucial US support, the Philippines is left with nothing but itself and its fellow ASEAN countries. However, with China’s business interests in the region, even the island nation’s howls are now falling on the deaf ears of its neighbors. Soon we will see if China will back off again once the Philippines, as it did before, shows its decisiveness to defend its territory at all costs and eventually win over global opinion and create a massive impact that the Chinese won’t be able to brush off.  On the other hand, China can be the decisive one this time and push itself to the limits. To this scenario, stern warnings from the Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs during his request for a united ASEAN stand on the issue: “This could just be our crisis now. But soon it will be yours too.”  Perfectly alluding to the grander Chinese plan of eventually implementing its claim in the entire South China Sea, beginning only with the Scarborough Shoal.
If China successfully claims the South China Sea, just because it is named after it and because of “historical records”, so too can India claim the entirety of the Indian Ocean. Italy will soon rise up again as a major power and claim all that was once part of the mighty Roman Empire.
Anybody want to claim the Pacific Ocean?
The absurdity is clear.
Hey Mongolia, want to have China again?

Editor’s note: As of this writing, China has begun deep water drilling activities in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in search of alleged oil and gas deposits. Chinese travel agencies also announced the cancellation of tour groups from the mainland, in response to the Philippines’ “harassment of Chinese vessels in its territory.” Furthermore, Beijing issued its most strongly-worded warning to date to Manila, saying that it will not hesitate to use force to assert its claim. On the other hand, Filipinos all over the world are planning to stage protests in front of Chinese embassies in major cities.

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