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(Opinion) Why the USA may go to war in the South China Sea

2014-10-30 15:30:03       source:NISCSS

By Dr. Ian Ralby


October 23, 2014


"It is no secret that the South China Sea is an area of conflict and controversy, but understanding the interests and role of the United States in that region is not intuitive. The situation centers on competing territorial claims by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia over several sets of islands. Attempts by these nations to control the disputed territories have become increasingly intense, bordering on violence, and vessels have narrowly avoided collision in recent displays of hostility. As the BBC reported on 15 October 2014, it even appears as though the United States is practicing for war with China in case the conflict heats up. Most articles on the subject explain that what is at stake is a mix of territory, fishing rights, mineral rights and control of shipping lanes. It is understandable why, given the economic value of those rights, the states competing over the claims would be willing to resort to violence, especially since a number of the claims involve emotionally charged historical ties and concern national identity and pride. But why would the US, which is already facing potentially extensive engagements in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, be at all inclined to enter a naval war with one of its closest peers in terms of economic resources and military might? The full answer involves a number of different justifications, but one of the most important ones has received very little attention. As it requires a nuanced understanding of international maritime law, most articles and reports on this simmering conflict in Southeast Asia have failed to even mention it. Simply put, if China gains the disputed territory, it may be able to block access of US Naval vessels and aircraft through most of the South China Sea.


There are a number of obvious reasons why the US would not want China to succeed in the various territorial disputes. Unequivocal Chinese hegemony throughout the South China Sea would be a considerable setback in the Obama Administration's :Pivot to Asia". It would also greatly increase China's maritime domain and access to fisheries and mineral resources. The US often focuses more on the process of resolving the disputes rather than the outcome. The one thing worse than unequivocal Chinese hegemony would be Chinese victory in the territorial disputes on account of bullying, hostility and force. So in an ironic twist, the US, which is not party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) - the most extensive treaty ever drafted, and the principle instrument in international maritime law - nevertheless encourages China, which is a party to UNCLOS, to abide by the Convention's dispute resolution processes. The US recognises most of UNCLOS as customary international law, but does not itself submit to the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which would be called upon to resolve the maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea."


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