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Deterrence in the Pacific

The China Sea is the “Asian Mediterranean”, but even better is the sea that Beijing considers as a “dry dock” for its ambitions as a global power. On closer inspection, there are all the geopolitical elements in the Chinese Sea to make it strategic: the straits; energy fields; territorial disputes and claims; the Indo-Pacific trade routes. Controlling it for the Celestial Empire is a vital issue: a power that yearns for global domination cannot afford problems in the garden pool. But China, with a continental dimension, is traditionally terrestrial power, and the maritime challenge presents complications and novelties. Especially if there is a force with consolidated naval capabilities to compete for the mail. The United States has identified the deadly sphere of Chinese containment in the China Sea.

The Philippines and Indonesia are the first two Asean countries (Association of Southeast Asian Countries) to express open support for the United States’ strong stance against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In a harsh speech, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Chinese claims over this vast body of water are “completely illegal”. While criticizing Beijing’s actions in the region, Washington had never taken such a clear stance, merely demanding freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.

Washington’s position is based on the ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which in 2016 called Chinese claims on almost 90% of the South China Sea “baseless”. Pompeo specified that the United States will undertake to protect the sovereign right of Southeast Asian nations to exploit their maritime resources.

For several observers, the US declaration reinforces the opposition of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia to Beijing’s claims on the strategic waterway. The Asian giant has occupied and militarized numerous coral atolls and sandy banks in the region. Chinese warships and coast guards, along with maritime militia vessels, frequently operate in the waters claimed by other states.

The Philippines, through the mouth of Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana, welcomed Pompeo’s words. According to Manila, they reflect the expectations of the community of nations, which demands respect for international laws in disputes over the South China Sea. Lorenzana also invited Beijing to recognize the Hague Court ruling.

In a more cautious form, Indonesia has expressed the same concept. The Jakarta foreign ministry said today that “any country’s support for our rights in the Natuna Sea is normal.” Indonesian leaders repeat that their country is not a party to the disputes over the South China Sea. The Chinese, however, claim to have historical rights to the fishy waters around the Natuna islands, an area which, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, falls within the exclusive economic zone of Jakarta.

Asean nations tend not to take sides in the geopolitical confrontation between Washington and Beijing. They need China for their economic growth – severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic – and at the same time the United States to contain the hegemonic claims of the Chinese.

Recently, the two superpowers showed muscle in the South China Sea. In early July, China conducted a large amphibious exercise in the waters around the Paracel islands. In response, Washington sent two aircraft carriers with their respective combat groups to the region.

By Domenico Greco

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