March 22, 2016
ASEAN, China and South China Sea
ASEAN Defense and Security Network meets in Vientiane, Laos, on Thursday, March 24, 2016.
by Dr. Michael Mineham
There will be a lot to talk about, particularly China’s miltarization of the Paracel and Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.
In February, satellite images detected China’s deployment of surface to air missiles (SAMs) on Woody Island in the Paracel group. This escalation follows China’s creation of seven new islands in the Spratley group by moving sediment from the seafloor on to the top of reefs. These artificial isles now feature deepwater harbours and long runways suitable for warships and fighter jets.
In addition, China has installed military radar more than 600 miles from the Chinese Island province of Hainan on the southernmost of its seven artificial islets. In theory, this will improve the ability of China’s so-called carrier-killer missile, the DF-21D, to strike faraway targets and complicate United States Navy efforts to develop countermeasures against it.
The problem for ASEAN is that individual member states also claim ownership of the Spratly islands and offshore continental shelf.
This is even although ASEAN member states can’t agree amongst themselves about who owns what in the Spratlys. For example, Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys, but these islands are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
The only unifying factor for ASEAN is that, despite conflicting territorial claims, all are opposed to China’s militarization of the area. The stakes are very high. In terms of oil and natural gas, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of seven billion barrels, and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The other issue is strategic. The South China Sea is the ‘throat’ of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. More than half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide pass through here from the Malacca Strait.
The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen time the amount that transits the Panama Canal.
No wonder China is building an underground submarine base on Hainan Island, and no wonder submarines are the new “bling” for ASEAN nations.
Vietnam has already taken possession of four new Kilo class submarines from Russia as part of a $2.6 billion deal agreed with Moscow in 2009. A final two are yet to be delivered.
The South China Sea has become the world’s newest hotspot. How hot, is an interesting question for everyone.