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Testing the waters in the South China Sea


The regional dispute is hotting up as Donald Trump signals a new US policy towards China  

With sparks once again being struck in the tinderbox South China Sea, it appears that countries in our region are testing each other and the world’s superpower as United States President-elect Donald Trump unfurls his Asia policy.
An unprecedented phone call between Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai ling-wen this month not only ignited strong reaction from Beijing for “flouting” America’s official recognition of the mainland’s “one-China policy”, but also set new ripples coursing through the regional maritime dispute.
China’s claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea overlaps with territory claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The dispute further complicates relations between mainland China and its neighbour Taiwan, which has stubbornly resisted Beijing’s control. Taipei’s claim of territory in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago is disputed by China and Vietnam, both of which have built facilities there to reinforce their “ownership”.
As an outside power, the United States is concerned about freedom of navigation, peace and stability in the sea, a conduit for about 70 per cent of global trade. Washington’s chief worry is that China’s building of artificial islands from reefs and shoals is a prelude to military dominance over international waters.
President-elect Trump raised the issue during his campaign and more recently tweeted that Beijing never asked the US if it was okay to “build a massive military complex in the South China Sea”.
Beijing responded swiftly to the Trump-Tsai phone call, outlining its claim by sending a long-range nuclear-capable bomber on a mission to fly the nine-dash line by which it defines the South China Sea as Chinese territory.
It was the first long-range flight by a Chinese bomber along the U-shaped line of demarcation since March 2015. Asia analysts say it also marked the start of Beijing’s “testing” of the incoming US president on the issue. China also “tested the waters” in 2001 when George W Bush took office and in 2009 when Barack Obama entered the White House, each time temporarily upsetting the diplomatic balance with Washington.
But other players in the South China Sea dispute are also making their voices heard. Taiwan has vowed to protect its sovereignty claim by preventing stop foreign boats fishing the disputed Spratly waters.
The Philippines, another claimant, said last week it would not allow the US to launch naval or aerial patrols in the disputed areas from its territory.
Manila’s longstanding dispute with Beijing over the sea has taken a fresh turn after new president Rodrigo Duterte sought to mend relations with China. Duterte has cosied up with Beijing while at the same time distancing himself from Washington and showing ambivalence towards Tokyo.
Vietnam remains steadfast over its claims and is making progress on its own island-building programme in the contentious sea. Images published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative suggest Hanoi has created almost 50 hectares of new land in the South China Sea, mostly in the Spratlys. The majority of work has occurred in the last two years, including on Ladd Reef where construction work is ongoing around the existing lighthouse.
Vietnam’s moves have drawn the attention of Beijing and ramped up tensions over fishing in the disputed areas.
These and other activities are testing the tolerance threshold among disputants and placing peaceful solutions to these conflicts even further out of reach.

Published : December 12, 2016

By : The Nation