From the air, the Spratly Islands, a cluster of miniature rocks and sandbars 425,000 kilometres square in the middle of the South China Sea, are almost imperceptible. Even up close, the Spratlys do not look like much – a few islands have tiny rocky beaches or occasional makeshift buildings. A tiny contingent of Filipino marines camps on a rusty hulk of an American ship from the Second World War grounded in the Spratlys.
It’s hard to believe these outcroppings could be at the centre of an international dispute, let alone one that could lead to a future Asian war. But the Spratlys are not only claimed by China as Beijing’s exclusive economic zone. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei angrily retort that parts of the South China Sea belong to them, including areas that Beijing insists is China’s alone.
The South East Asian countries and China have been unable to resolve their overlapping claims to the sea, believed to be rich in oil and strategically vital – more than US$5 trillion (Dh18.4 trillion) in trade passes through annually. The Philippines and Vietnam have asked an international tribunal to rule on what areas of the South China Sea are within Beijing’s exclusive economic zones but any decision will be meaningless; China argues that the tribunal has no power.
In the past three years, under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has for the first time since Mao stated its desire to be the dominant power in Asia. China’s leadership is asserting long-dormant claims to unsettled land borders and large portions of Asia’s waters, including the South China Sea and the East China Sea in North East Asia, and demanding that it, not America or Japan, lead regional organisations. With the United States desperately trying to maintain its influence in Asia, countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and many others that relied on US protection are scrambling to build up their own armies and navies.