The Spratly Islands – Blog No. 42.

War in South China Sea.


There have recently been some alarmingly bellicose remarks made about Chinese actions in the South China Sea. At the ASEAN meeting in Singapore in May 2015, one of the issues discussed was the current Chinese military developments on the Spratly Islands.  US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated roundly that American military assets would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.” The Chinese delegate responded to the effect that if you insist in overflying our bases in the Spratly Islands the result will be a military confrontation.

This has been a festering sore for some time. In 2012, I had an article published in the local Marlborough Express on just this subject. On re-reading it, the historical aspects mentioned remain pertinent. This is an extract from that article:

“Implications of Chinese American confrontation in the South China Sea.

Last week the Marlborough Express ran an article syndicated from the Sydney Morning Herald and sub-titled “China makes a mockery of ASEAN solidarity and confounds the US,” China was seen as reacting “aggressively to pursue its claims to huge contested territory in the resource-rich seas of the Asia-Pacific” The article contained no information as to the historical validity of those claims but it did state, most revealingly, “The Obama Administration coached ASEAN to stand up to China en bloc…The aim was to reduce tension by putting all 10 ASEAN members on one side of the table and China on the other..” It would be hard for even the current formulators of New Zealand’s foreign policy to seriously believe that organising an international ganging up against China was likely to lead to a reduction in tension.

Historically, the Chinese claim for sovereign rights over a large (but not definitively demarcated) portion of the South China Sea was originally drawn up and published in 1947 by the then American allied, Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang government. This was known as the “eleven-dash line.” When the Communist Party came to power in China shortly thereafter, it endorsed the Kuomintang’s claim. Subsequent negotiations with Vietnam, reduced this to a “nine-dash line.” It is on this rough and ready, demarcation line that the dispute currently resolves.

At the time of China making its claim, there was no vision of vast mineral wealth to be claimed from under the sea. Furthermore, the nations now being emboldened by the USA to seize the opportunity of gaining mineral rights by ganging up on China, were fully preoccupied with their own internal recovery from the devastating effects of Japanese occupation. At the time, no objections were raised to the Chinese claim, which duly became seen by the Chinese people as part of its immutable sovereign territory.

For many years China demonstrated restraint and a willingness to negotiate with other nations affected. Unsurprisingly, trapped between the ardent nationalism of the Chinese people and the recently formulated USA policy of aggressive containment of the growth in Chinese sea power, commensurate with China’s need to protect its vital trade routes, the Chinese government has become less conciliatory in its defence of the nine-dash line…” 

The Spratlys are so low lying that they are virtually uninhabitable. The Chinese have now announced completion of their land reclamation works, on the islands, which will allow airstrips and other military installations to be placed on them – (until such time as climate change re-submerges them.)

One of several Chinese ‘enhanced’ Spratly Islands.

The conflict is developing along two separate lines. The first is that concerning International Law, which is based on UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.) – This convention, like many other such international agreements and despite all its posturing, is yet another, which the exceptionalist USA might, or might not have signed, but which it has steadfastly refused to ratify.

The nine-dash line was first publicised in 1947 by the Kuomintang government. This was well before the advent of UCLOS, but it was in 1947 that the International Court of Justice in Geneva was hearing its first case in respect of freedom of navigation – a case brought by Great Britain against Albania. All logic would demand that if the aggrieved parties wished, so long after the event, to now challenge the Chinese claims, they should take the case to the ICJ.

The Court is one in which all parties can expect a fair hearing. As a demonstration of the Court’s impartiality and fearlessness in face of the mighty, in 1986, it ruled in favour of Nicaragua in the case it brought against the USA for illegally trespassing on its sovereignty. (The USA, in support of the right-wing Contra rebels, had mined Nicaraguan harbours.)  Sadly, a typically bad example was set by the larger party in this dispute in that the USA refused to participate in parts of the proceedings, or to abide by the Court’s decision. The USA ultimately used its muscle on UN Security Council to have the Court’s ruling suppressed. China might well choose to pursue this legal avenue to demonstrate its virtue as a global citizen and to demonstrate its respect for international law (in marked contrast to the disrespect shown by the USA) were it not for one other factor – Realpolitik. While global anarchy persists, each nation has to look after its own survival, irrespective of the as yet unenforceable conventions of international law.

China is now the world’s largest importer of petroleum products and other commodities. Most of its critical supplies of fossil fuels pass through the choke-point of the Straits of Hormuz, entirely under American control, and almost all the remainder pass through the Malacca Strait, again readily closed by any reasonably well-equipped hostile power.

China oil supply
Chinese and Japanese trade routes


All the nations bordering the South Chinese Sea have a vested interest in ensuring freedom of navigation through it for trade purposes. All of them have a huge interest in developing their trading links with each other. So where is the problem?

The first problem is clearly that the smaller nations feel that China’s territorial claim is unfair. This is not a matter of freedom of passage, but of an equitable division of the mineral wealth underneath the sea. This is not a life or death problem for China. Even should a court allocate areas of sea-bed to other nations, China would be well placed to purchase any new-found commodities from its neighbours, especially since that trade would not be vulnerable to distant choke-points.

However, there is a second problem. Such a peaceable and rational outcome may not be in the USA’s best interest. Ever since the start of the Cold War, American foreign policy has been based on the premise that it is exceptional and other nations must obey its dictum, or be regarded as inherently hostile. In recent years, the USA’s economy has crumbled under the weight of its excessive military ambition to be the sole and uncontested super-power with first pick of the Earth’s resources. In parallel to its increasing indebtedness America’s decline is being matched by China’s rise.

Now, Washington is facing the loss of its privileged position as the sole issuer of the global reserve currency. This incredibly advantageous status, in effect, made other nations render tribute in kind to the USA in return for the dollars it merely had to print. The USA is doing all in its power to preserve, or at least prolong, its threatened economic dominance. Looking at the consequences of American foreign policy around the world, an observer is not hard pushed to find an extraordinary chaos in human affairs. Such is the chaos that it could well be asked how much of the chaos is deliberate and how much, the unforeseen consequence of incompetence. Whenever an economy gets into difficulties, whenever war threatens or breaks out, it is America that gets to boost its economy by selling armaments and it is America’s banks that benefit from the capital flight that follows destabilisation and impoverishes the victim nations. Based on data from the IMF and OECD, total foreign ownership of U.S. assets rose from $16.6 trillion in 2009 to nearly $27 trillion in 2014. That’s a total of $10 trillion that has flowed into U.S. investments from abroad.

arms sales 2
160 billion dollars in US sales in 2012. The vast majority of these sales are to its own armed forces but exports give economies of scale and thereby make a substantial contribution.

Given the above analysis of American v. Chinese interests, it is highly unlikely that peace is going to be allowed to break out in the South Chinese Sea. America will do all in its diplomatic power to make China’s neighbours feel threatened, to increase their defence expenditure and disrupt their trade with China, thereby benefiting its own economy while preventing further accrual of power to Beijing.

A key plank of such an American policy has to be to make China react in such a way as to make its neighbours feel threatened. America, with its ‘pivot to Asia,’ its unsubtle hints of ‘containment’ and its implicit threats to Chinese supply lines, has given cause enough for China to wish to be able to project its military power beyond it frontiers.

Behind all this relatively obvious drama at the front of the stage, is a hidden sub-plot that is little noticed and which could well prove to be the main plot. This is China’s fear of nuclear blackmail. Were America ever to become confident that it had the ability to strike both China and/or (if it could separate them) its Russian ally with nuclear weapons and receive no retaliation in kind, the game would be over – one nation (less than 5% of humanity – only 1% or so of which have any real say in the conduct of its international policy) would rule the world – and probably only in that 1%’s best interest.

In a previous blog I attempted to describe American nuclear policy as seen through Russian eyes”

“NATO proceeded to ignore these assurances. It relentlessly expanded its membership into the buffer zone. At the same time, the USA developed its anti-missile technology and commenced negotiations to put these missiles on NATO’s easternmost frontier, Poland. The pretence was that they were to defend Europe from non-existent Iranian nuclear missiles. It was clear to the Russians that this was a feeble excuse – but what was the real intention behind the move?

Given the enormous budget and advanced technology behind the American ‘defense’ industry, it was perfectly conceivable that modest installations, ostensibly designed to counter the odd and imaginary Iranian missile, could develop overnight into a force capable of destroying any Russian missiles that might remain operational after an American first strike. No longer would the MAD rules of mutually assured destruction apply. A Doctor Strangelove, emergent in America, could obliterate Russia. The further East NATO’s anti-missile forces could be stationed, the greater the threat they would pose to Russia. The Ukraine would be a step too far. Despite no end of warnings from Russia, the EU and NATO continued with their plans to subvert and seduce the Ukraine into the Western camp, thereby confirming in Putin’s eyes the reality of their hostile intent.”

Russia has a retaliatory force of at least 2700 nuclear warheads spread among 360 land-launched ICBMs, 12, submarines and 70 bomber aircraft. No matter how close to mainland Russia’s heartland the USA can nudge its anti-missile defences, given the fact that Russia can disperse its arsenal across one sixth of the world’s land surface as well as the world’s oceans, Russia is only gradually becoming more vulnerable to American anti-missile technology. It might be several decades before the USA might feel utterly confident that no Russian riposte would be forthcoming to an American first strike.

China is in a similar position to Russia as far as anxiety about finding itself exposed with no second-strike capability. However, China, with just 180 nuclear warheads (against the USA’s 5,000, or so) dispersed across just 60 or so IBMs in silos and with only four submarines capable of retaliatory launches, has to feel extraordinarily exposed to what it has good reason to see as the Pentagon’s hostile intentions combined with its rapidly increasing technological capabilities.

Type 094 Jin Class Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Subm 0-94 sub
Type 094 Jin Class Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine

The small Chinese deterrent submarine force is based at Yulin on Hainan Island projecting out from the South Chinese mainland towards the Paracel Islands. If ever the international situation deteriorates, the Chinese would have to get their deterrent submarines out from the perimeter of island states that ring the South China Sea. If the US is allowed free passage for its military craft, such as it is currently delighting in exercising in the Black Sea, it will be able to pick up, trail and if they decided to, destroy Chinese submarines as they enter and leave Hainan. Given its bellicose posture, the right of free passage throughout the South China Sea for American naval vessels could pose an existential threat that, irrespective of International Law, no Chinese government could ignore.

If America really is interested in planning for peace, rather than war, in that neighbourhood, it would defuse the situation by negotiating a deal, whereby its military would not travel through the South China Sea without Chinese permission and in return, China would accept the arbitration of the International Court of Justice in regard to territorial rights over the sea bed. To sweeten the pill, there could be a reciprocal agreement to limit Chinese naval rights in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean!

Gulf of Mexico & Caribbean

Remember the Maine! For America, a giant continental power, having its trade routes from the Mississippi basin to the open sea, forced to pass through a choke-point straddled by a Spanish colonial government in Cuba, was intolerable. Look at the map and note the geographic similarities between the situation that faced the USA in 1898 and the one now confronting China. For the USA, the situation justified its first war of colonial expansion.

The first of these hyperlinks from a Washington establishment site gives insight into the domestic pressures working on the Chinese leadership.*Editors%20Picks&utm_campaign=2014_EditorsPicksRS6%2F1

This, from an opponent of American empire, giving his view of the current Washington thought process.

This, gives the background to the USA’s decision to attempt the containment of China, i.e. before the Eurasian landmass becomes capable of outperforming the USA both economically and militarily.

silk road
The new silk road, rail and sea lanes


This hyperlink, from a source writing from the political left, if to be given credence, indicates the extent to which New Zealand, with its defence understanding with an imprudently partisan and combative Australia, could so easily become embroiled in the escalating international crisis.

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