South China Sea Clash: Asia’s Dangerous Game


Collisions between ships of Vietnam and China following the latter’s installation of a deep water oil rig in the disputed South China Sea mark a dangerous escalation of simmering tensions. Simultaneous to this fracas near the contested Paracel Islands, maritime authorities of the Philippines have arrested Chinese fishermen close to another coveted portion of the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands, triggering a war of words between Beijing and Manila.

China, Vietnam and the Philippines represent a triad of instability and tension in the Asia-Pacific with their incompatible nationalistic claims over islets and energy-rich water bodies. (The South China Sea is estimated to hold 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.) So deeply entrenched is the animosity among the three that even the nomenclature of the terrain on which they make their shows of force is subject to controversy. For the Vietnamese, “South China Sea” is an affront; they prefer to call it the “East Sea,” i.e. the waters to the east of Vietnam’s coast. For the Philippines, the part of the South China Sea that falls within its exclusive economic zone should be called the “West Philippine Sea,” a term China dismisses. Beijing’s dreaded “nine-dash line” or “cow’s tongue” is based on arguments that the South China Sea waters and islands fell under its suzerainty during medieval times, evoking memories of an imperial past.

Although the South China Sea has long been a hotbed of rival nationalisms, the genesis of the current troubles lies in China’s post-2008 reincarnation as a more assertive regional power. Prior to that, Beijing had maintained an accommodative and non-provocative posture vis-à-vis its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. The Chinese leadership that inherited the economic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping around the turn of the millennium had placed a premium on avoiding hostilities with its ASEAN neighbors as it sought to deepen trade and investment links.


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