In its most serious and unequivocal indictment of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, the US Government has released a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which states “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.” And goes on to add “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”
Sharing his views with Financial Express Online, Commodore Anil Jai Singh, an Indian Navy & Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation, says, “China’s unlawful conduct in the South China Sea and its territorial claim to over 85% of this waterway bound by the Nine-Dash line has been of serious concern to the region for quite some time. President Obama, during his tenure, initiated the famous ‘pivot’ to the Pacific which was later moderated to being called the ‘rebalance’. However, it was unable to deliver the desired message and is widely regarded as one of President Obama’s foreign policy failures. China perceived this ambivalence as a US weakness and paid little heed as it went about enforcing its dubious claims over weaker countries in the region. President Trump too was less than willing to support the region and even cast serious doubts on his intention to support even the US allies in the region. This would no doubt have alarmed the small Pacific nations which began having doubts about the US commitment to the region and soon found themselves seeking accommodation with China.”
According to Commodore Singh, “The 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in favour of the Philippines which was rubbished by China failed to find adequate global traction or even adequate US support which led the Philippines to also keep quiet. China in the meantime continued with enforcing its will in South China Sea, building artificial islands and then militarising them. It started poaching in the EEZ of other nations claiming them as its own and intimidated these small countries with military and economic coercion while the world stood by and watched. It also used Kim Jong Un, the North Korean despot to effectively keep President Trump distracted while it went about its business of consolidating maritime power and its stranglehold on the region.”
“It is only in the last couple of years with the souring of the US-China economic relationship and the imposition of trade barriers by the US which directly impact China that the underlying tensions between the two countries have come to the fore and have now acquired a multi-layered and multi-sectoral dimension which is increasingly spilling over into the military domain,” the Indian Navy veteran adds.
The spread of the “Chinese virus” as President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have labelled the current pandemic (and not unjustifiably so) and China’s subsequent aggressive conduct in the South China Sea and off Taiwan have brought things to ahead. “China sensed vulnerability in US capability when the USS Theodore Roosevelt suffered an outbreak of the coronavirus and had to dock in Guam. It stepped up its activities in the region anticipating a US inability to respond. It bullied its maritime neighbours and even renamed 80 geographical features in the disputed South China Sea including 25 islands, shoals and reefs and 55 oceanic mountains and ridges. It has also renamed the disputed Paracel and Spratlys Islands as the Xisha and Nansha respectively and set up two administrative districts to administer them,” he adds.
According to him, “It began making threatening noises about occupying Taiwan by force and in a recent move has introduced a controversial and draconian law to govern Hongkong. In the last few months, both President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have been taking an increasingly aggressive stand towards China which has now resulted in this statement which has minced no words and will perhaps go down very badly with the Chinese leadership. President Xi Jinping, whose self-created aura of invincibility has been severely dented at home and abroad in the face of his handling of the pandemic, cannot afford to remain silent at this globally broadcast public rebuke by the US.”
“Relations between the two countries are probably at their worst ever in the four decades since they established diplomatic ties. There has been talk of a US-China confrontation for some time now which has now taken an alarming turn. In its latest move, China is firming up a major economic and security arrangement with Iran which has serious implications not only for the US-China relationship but for the entire Indo-Pacific, including India,” Commodore Singh opines.
The US has thrown down the gauntlet and it is the Chinese response that will determine the future course of this tenuous relationship which is being spoken of as Cold War 2.0. The world is looking on anxiously hoping that this does indeed remains cold.