Why are Western countries meddling in the South China Sea?
We have seen increased attention being paid to so-called issues of concern in the South China Sea by Western powers since the election of US President Joe Biden. There has to be a broader objective for these countries to be putting such an emphasis on interference in waters so far removed from their own shores — such as the desire to use the South China Sea in their attempts to hinder China's peaceful rise and China's growing economic cooperation with its South East Asian neighbors.
Understandably, Beijing sees such activities by Western nations as an unacceptable interference in China's domestic affairs. China has long espoused the principle in international relations of "mutual non-interference in other countries' internal affairs". China does not wage war on other nations. A principle that is also to be found in the United Nations Charter: "Convinced that the strict observance by States of the obligation not to intervene in the affairs of any other State is an essential condition to ensure that nations live together in peace with each other.." and "... the people of the UN are determined to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors."
The other nations that have a geographical presence in the South China Sea are of course China's neighbors. It is a fact that when it comes to the small islands in such a sea there are disputes over which country they belong to. We have to look to historical evidence to determine this. Territorial rights extend to the economic exclusion zones in the waters around the islands. So sovereignty also extends to who has a right to fish? Who has a right to drill? Who can reclaim land from the sea and build facilities such as landing strips.
These issues relate to economic benefit. But there will be equal, if not greater, economic benefits to be gained in the South China Sea countries cooperating in broad areas. Economic cooperation between the South East Asian nations and China has been building in the last decade with mutual gains. As part of this, dispute resolution mechanisms have been developed. China and Philippines have established a bilateral consultation mechanism for the South China Sea issue and similarly China and Vietnam have made efforts to manage their maritime issues. Further dialogue is taking place between China and Malaysia and Indonesia.
Disputes over islands can be found in other parts of the world. British citizens will recall the "Falklands War" of 1982 where the Falkland Islands, inhabited by British nationals but off the shores of Argentina where they are called the "Islas Malvinas" and believed to belong to that South American nation, were temporarily occupied by Argentinian forces. Despite a long standing Atlantic Alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom, the US did not intervene in the dispute. It required a 10 week undeclared war before British forces reclaimed the islands, which was marked by the sinking of Britain's HMS Sheffield and Argentina's General Belgrango warships. Who would want to see any shots fired over any dispute in the South China Sea?
Yet, we have seen an increasing "militarization" of the South China Sea, led by the US aided by other extra-regional countries. The scale and the frequency of military activities in the South China Sea conducted by countries from outside the region have increased. Early in 2021, the UK announced that the "first deployment" of its new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be to the Asia-Pacific later this year, with the South China Sea the focus of its activities. France and Germany also plan to send warships.
The US commitment is the largest with consideration being given to re-establishing the First Fleet to cover the South China Sea and neighboring areas. Since Joe Biden was sworn in as the US president in January, the "freedom of navigation operations" of the US Navy, including aircraft carrier battle groups, have increased in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Western nations have seen their economies and public finances badly hit by the global pandemic and there are pressing needs to boost healthcare systems, social care and job creation, not to mention the costly fight against climate change. Surely many citizens of Western nations will wonder why, especially at this time, issues in the South China Sea cannot be left to the local neighbors to continue to resolve through dialogue? Why does the West have to get involved?
Colin Speakman is an economist and an international educator with CAPA: The Global Education Network.
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