In an piece written by Robert Kaplan he argues that the South China Sea is the area where violence will, most likely, spring up.
It should be said before all else, China continues to claim essentially all of the South China Sea as it’s own, ignoring the claims of all other parties, irrespective of how strong their claims are.
Kaplan argues that the “physical contours of East Asia augur a naval century — naval being defined here in the broad sense to include both sea and air battle formations”. He warns starkely that China is “engaged in an undeniable naval expansion”, he adds that “It is through sea power that China will psychologically erase two centuries of foreign transgressions on its territory — forcing every country around it to react”.
This desire of China to undo the slights of the past and return as a great power is one of the main reasons as to what is driving China to act the way it is, both economically and militarily. Kaplan discusses past conflicts, WWII, the Cold War, and War on Terror. He notes that the war in the South China Sea will be different as it “will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula as the striking exception”. Kaplan adds that “War is far from inevitable even if competition is a given. And if China and the United States manage the coming handoff successfully, Asia, and the world, will be a more secure, prosperous place”. There are few figures currently in the United States that might have the ability to manage this new relationship, the most obvious being, Jon Hunstman.
Taking stock of China’s maratime neighbours Kaplan notes that, Vietman is “a capitalist juggernaut despite its political system, seeking closer military ties to the United States”, while Indonesia is “poised to emerge as a second India: a vibrant and stable democracy with the potential to project power by way of its growing economy”. He concludes the section saying that all of the above nations are “are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores”. The only question is how they will do this.
Many seems curious as to why there is such fuss over an admittedly strategic body of water. Kaplan aruges that “the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a potentially huge bounty”. A note of quiet caution should be sounded however about the true size of these reserves. Yet, as a result of the sheer size of China’s claim to the Sea, the “result is that all nine states that touch the South China Sea are more or less arrayed against China and therefore dependent on the United States for diplomatic and military support”.
Worse still, Kaplan says that “energy consumption is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half that growth”, as a sign of the tension already in the region he notes that “China has so far confiscated 12 geographical features, Taiwan one, Vietnam 25, the Philippines eight, and Malaysia five”. He continues saying that “China, along with other states in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence of old-fashioned nationalism”.
He concludes noting that “major warfare will not break out in the area and that instead countries will be content to jockey for position with their warships on the high seas” but adds that “Asia cannot continue to change economically without changing politically and strategically; a Chinese economic behemoth naturally will not be content with American military primacy in Asia”, yet at the same time Kaplan makes the interesting point that “China’s conception of itself is that of a benign, non-hegemonic power, one that does not interfere in the domestic philosophies of other states in the way the United States — with its busybody morality — does”. Thus he says America maybe the issue that may cause China to act out, not China itself.
In a related article, the power of the Chinese navy is discussed. Having acquired a “new” aircraft carrier, China’s desire of having something resembling a a blue water navy is underway. The author notes that ” The carrier Varyag was purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and brought to Dalian in 2002. In Dalian, the PLAN’s shipbuilders have filled in the “guts” that the original hull was missing, including engines, generators, and defense systems. At 65,000 tons, the ex-Varyag is smaller than the 100,000-ton American Nimitz-class carriers”. He adds that the size of the vessel means that it will “not be able to deploy heavier planes that require the assistance of a catapult to take off. As heavier planes are required to collect information, coordinate operations, fly for long periods of time, or drop heavy ordnance, it seems that Varyag will primarily be used to extend the umbrella of Chinese air cover from its shores”.
He explicitly rules out power projection however and says that China currently lacks the knowledge needed to get the best out of a vessel like this. He argues that having talked to officers in the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) that “Entering the aircraft-carrier club sends a message to the Chinese people, and to the rest of the world, that China has stood up at sea and is beginning to build expeditionary military capabilities commensurate with its economic and political power”. Thus he implies that it is more a propaganda tool than anything else.
Yet, not for long, he argues that China “is already building a second generation of aircraft carriers, the first of which the U.S. Defense Department projects may be ready as early as 2015″. America should watch China’s next moves closely.