South China Sea dispute a threat to regional stability

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The dispute over the South China Sea is no longer limited to regional claimants and could threaten the stability of the entire Southeast Asia region, if diplomatic efforts fail.

By Ashley Boncimino

Recent announcements about the US military presence in Asia brought the South China Sea conflict to the forefront of the region’s attention last week, building on the increased tensions developed in April between the Philippines and China. After high-level bilateral security and diplomatic talks between the Philippines and the US, the latter pledged to increase its annual foreign military sales programme to $30 million – three times the level of 2011 -, which could lead to dramatic trade difficulties in the future if it incited military action.

The months-long conflict between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal – a horseshoe shaped reef near the Philippines that both countries claim ownership of – might have been perpetuated or escalated by news of increased US involvement, according to some experts. This news included general plans by the US to reposition its naval fleet so 60 per cent of its battleships are in the Asia-Pacific region in the next decade, a 50 per cent increase from today. News agency Reuters announced that the move sparked the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s pledge to increase its vigilance, a possible future barrier to trade in the region. Some experts believe China’s impromptu escort of four Indian vessels to South Korea exemplified China’s increasingly prevalent view of ownership over the otherwise internationally shared waters.

Other international powers like Japan, Australia and India have significant economic interests in the freedom of trade and travel through the region, along with the six countries with territorial claims. China’s insistence on bilateral rather than multilateral talks means a more difficult path to a six-country agreement about guidelines, norms and peaceful travel for the troubled zone.

While China claims the majority of South China Sea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia claim overlapping territory. An estimated $5.3 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of which is US trade. If tensions rise between any of the six claimants – particularly China, as the country’s military power virtually eclipses the others’ -, the diversion of cargo ships to other routes could have enormous effects on regional economies with increased insurance rates and longer transits. Additionally, delays and costs would extend to the already weakened global economy, as maritime trade makes up 90 per cent of international trade. The bolstered naval capacities of most key players opens the potential for more than economic losses.

Some analysts have noted that the standoff over the Shoal could be a guide to future conflicts in the sense that relations between China and the other claimants will continue to be of significant importance for regional trade, and that international trade partners would continue to escalate military involvement over the dispute. Not one of the countries involved would benefit from hampered trade capabilities, yet the recent tensions in the region paired with the allure of untapped fuel resources could clearly escalate the right catalysts. Immediate military conflict isn’t imminent, but the increasingly pointed interactions between claimants and numerous trade and partner agreements ensure the South China Sea will be an area of intense interest for many years to come.

 

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

Click to enlarge

The dispute over the South China Sea is no longer limited to regional claimants and could threaten the stability of the entire Southeast Asia region, if diplomatic efforts fail.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Click to enlarge

The dispute over the South China Sea is no longer limited to regional claimants and could threaten the stability of the entire Southeast Asia region, if diplomatic efforts fail.

By Ashley Boncimino

Recent announcements about the US military presence in Asia brought the South China Sea conflict to the forefront of the region’s attention last week, building on the increased tensions developed in April between the Philippines and China. After high-level bilateral security and diplomatic talks between the Philippines and the US, the latter pledged to increase its annual foreign military sales programme to $30 million – three times the level of 2011 -, which could lead to dramatic trade difficulties in the future if it incited military action.

The months-long conflict between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal – a horseshoe shaped reef near the Philippines that both countries claim ownership of – might have been perpetuated or escalated by news of increased US involvement, according to some experts. This news included general plans by the US to reposition its naval fleet so 60 per cent of its battleships are in the Asia-Pacific region in the next decade, a 50 per cent increase from today. News agency Reuters announced that the move sparked the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s pledge to increase its vigilance, a possible future barrier to trade in the region. Some experts believe China’s impromptu escort of four Indian vessels to South Korea exemplified China’s increasingly prevalent view of ownership over the otherwise internationally shared waters.

Other international powers like Japan, Australia and India have significant economic interests in the freedom of trade and travel through the region, along with the six countries with territorial claims. China’s insistence on bilateral rather than multilateral talks means a more difficult path to a six-country agreement about guidelines, norms and peaceful travel for the troubled zone.

While China claims the majority of South China Sea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia claim overlapping territory. An estimated $5.3 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of which is US trade. If tensions rise between any of the six claimants – particularly China, as the country’s military power virtually eclipses the others’ -, the diversion of cargo ships to other routes could have enormous effects on regional economies with increased insurance rates and longer transits. Additionally, delays and costs would extend to the already weakened global economy, as maritime trade makes up 90 per cent of international trade. The bolstered naval capacities of most key players opens the potential for more than economic losses.

Some analysts have noted that the standoff over the Shoal could be a guide to future conflicts in the sense that relations between China and the other claimants will continue to be of significant importance for regional trade, and that international trade partners would continue to escalate military involvement over the dispute. Not one of the countries involved would benefit from hampered trade capabilities, yet the recent tensions in the region paired with the allure of untapped fuel resources could clearly escalate the right catalysts. Immediate military conflict isn’t imminent, but the increasingly pointed interactions between claimants and numerous trade and partner agreements ensure the South China Sea will be an area of intense interest for many years to come.

 

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