Confrontation at sea between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea presents a handy example of how future conflicts in the Pacific are likely to arise. The details of blame (which fishing or research ship caused the incident; whether or not the tension was orchestrated in Hanoi or Beijing) are perhaps interesting, but there are broader issues at stake. There is a real likelihood that, sooner or later, one of several maritime border disputes between China and one of its Asian neighbours will flare up into an East Asian conflict.
A February 21 entry in The Economist’s Banyan column and blog ('A Sea of disputes') neatly summed up the major sovereignty disputes within this major shipping route:
“China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam War. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim, so that huge unresolved dispute also has a bearing on this one. The same three parties also claim the Spratly archipelago, to the south. But in the south, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have partial claims.”
Further to the North, China also has designs on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyutai to the Chinese). That sovereignty dispute flared into bilateral tension when a Chinese trawler collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel. The parallels with this week’s China-Vietnam stand-off are obvious. Again, US-supported Taiwan is a complicating factor, as it predictably also claims the islands. Fuel to the fire is provided by the oil and gas reserves in the disputed seas around the islands which Japan started exploring in 2004.
These disputes cannot be resolved. The only question is how they might be kept from deteriorating into open conflict, or perhaps how long it will take for conflict to break out. I was lucky to listen to a presentation given in May by retired Royal Navy Rear Admiral Christopher Parry, who spoke about the likelihood of conflict in that region, becoming more likely as China enters a crucial 20-year period after which its economic surge will fall away, giving way to the problem of an ageing population, such as faced by Japan today.
Inferred is the temptation to achieve hegemony one way or another while the clock is still ticking. This is the same conundrum faced by Germany's strategic planners in the 1900s, fearing that if they did not strike out soon to win dominance in Europe, through the First World War, the Kaiser's empire would lose its place on the world stage.
Parry’s presentation highlighted the importance of littoral population growth over the next few decades in Pacific countries such as China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam. The sea will become increasingly important to those populations, as they look to exploit the finite energy, mineral and other natural resources of the region, potentially exerting sovereign claims by force. The growth of large coastal cities will also enhance the importance of the balance of power between naval and amphibious forces in the region.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is perhaps the biggest ever giveaway-name for a land power only now dipping its toe into the pond of expeditionary naval power. China’s fleet is becoming a more potent force. It was able to intervene in the Libyan crisis this year, withdrawing some Chinese nationals from the North African country. China has now entered into the club of countries operating aircraft carriers, through its acquisition of the former Soviet Varyag, renamed Shi Lang.
That ship, and the results of China’s own highly secretive future aircraft carrier build project, can give it an edge over other would-be maritime powers. That is happening while the US Navy is fighting to keep its Pacific Fleet maintained, with pressure to drop below its desired strength of 12 supercarriers, backed up by almost as many amphibious warfare ships (which can operate vertical takeoff aircraft like the Harrier as well as helicopters). These amphibious warfare vessels are the equivalent to many of the smaller flat-tops operated by the likes of Italy, the UK, Spain, etc.
Meanwhile, Australia – not knowing whether it can expect a peaceful neighbourhood to its north within a decade or two – has expanded its own capabilities to meet the likelihood that competition in the region might not be peaceful.
It looks like the Americans will want Australia to play a more active part in Pacific gunboat politics. Australia’s 2009 defence white paper called for a future fleet of at least 12 non-nuclear submarines, with scope for more in the 2030s, with three or four air warfare destroyers, backed up by at least eight frigates primarily fitted for anti-submarine work but of large size and able to operate UAVs. Two new helicopter carriers will form an expeditionary capability, which Australia will hope can stabilise the strategic balance in the case of a US drawdown and an expanding Chinese fleet.
China's Shi Lang, ex Varyag.