JAMES O’NEILL. The South China Sea and the risk of war: a summary.

Sep 19, 2017

It is self-evident that the risk of war is not confined to the South China Sea.  In fact, the risk of war there is probably less than in other significant flash points around the world.  

Since 1945 The US has overthrown or sought to overthrow at least 55 governments, of which 32 were successful.  Recent examples involving Australia include Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.  All of these countries, and many others from that list of 55, are now seriously dysfunctional.  They have certain other features in common, including the reasons for the intervention, which are rarely as publicized.  Similarly, the mainstream media likewise continually misrepresents the consequences.

In Afghanistan, for example, we now know that the decision to invade was taken in July 2001, two months before the “9/11” events that were the ostensible reason.  The real reasons had more to do with the gas pipeline from the Caspian Basin.  Sixteen years, billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of displaced and killed persons later, the US and its allies, including Australia, are still there.  The mainstream media is still concealing the real reasons.  Apart from the aforesaid pipeline, the real motives include control of the opium crop; military bases on China and Iran’s borders; and $3 trillion of mineral resources including the so-called rare earth minerals essential for modern technology.

This history is relevant in looking at the South China Sea where the dominant mainstream narrative is one of China’s alleged “aggressiveness” or bullying of its neighbours in the region.  This arises in part from China’s claims within the so-called Nine Dash Line, a vague delineation of territorial limits within the South China Sea.  China is also accused of militarizing the South China Sea by the construction of artificial islands within the Spratlys Group, a collection of rocks, reefs and shoals in the southern South China Sea.

In fact, the Nine Dash Line was first formulated by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai Shek in 1947, two years before the PRC came into existence.  The Nationalist government’s latter day successor, Taiwan, makes almost identical claims as the PRC in respect of its claimed “rights” within the Nine Dash Line.  That unity of view between Taiwan and the PRC extends to both of them rejecting the recent findings of the International Court of Arbitration on the claim brought by the then Philippines Government.

Taiwan has also militarized Pratos, an island some 2000 km from Taiwan itself.  Vietnam has thus far also constructed military fortifications on eight of the Spratlys “islands”.  Other littoral States have done likewise, but the mainstream media only ever refers to China’s program as “evidence” of some nefarious intent.

A key entry and exit point for the South China Sea is the Malacca Strait, a 2.4 km wide waterway between Sumatra and Malaysia.  Approximately $5 trillion of sea borne trade passes through the Strait each year, including 80% of china’s oil exports. The US Navy, together with its ally Australia, has a regular military exercise, Operation Talisman Sabre, that practices blockading the Malacca Strait.  Unsurprisingly, that is seen as an unfriendly act by China.  It is difficult to reconcile this exercise with the propaganda about “freedom of navigation” that the Americans purport to exercise in the South China Sea.

Freedom of navigation is a right protected for civilian traffic under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  China has ratified this convention, the US has not.  There has not been a single reported incident of China hindering the free passage of civilian traffic in the South China Sea.

Also largely unreported in the western media is the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea entered into by China and the ten ASEAN countries in November 2002.  Officials of all these countries have met on a regular basis in the intervening years to formulate the rules and regulations to give effect to the Declaration.  The latest such meeting was in May 2017 when the parties agreed upon the final framework “to manage and control disputes, to deepen practical maritime cooperation, to promote consultation and jointly maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea. This also received almost no coverage in the western mainstream media.  It does not of course accord with the preferred narrative of an aggressive China bullying its neighbours.

The potential blocking of the Malacca Strait by hostile forces has spurred China into developing alternative routs and options for its international trade and development.  These include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and, most importantly, the huge infrastructure program known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  Together with related multilateral arrangements, including BRICS, the North South Transportation Corridor, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a rapid transformation of Eurasia is currently underway.

Collateral arrangements include bypassing the US dollar as the medium of exchange, with countries either trading in their own currencies or through new developments such as the gold backed convertible note.  These and other initiatives will have enormous implications for the US dollar and the global hegemony that has flowed from its previous unique role.

An almost completely unnoticed aspect of the BRI is that China will have secure and land- based access from friendly countries to the very commodities that Australia has grown rich on selling to China over the past 40 years.

If Australia persists in its current Anglo-American centric foreign and defence policies, then the time will shortly arrive when China will no longer view Australia as a favoured source of raw materials.  The results would be economically catastrophic for Australia.

The time is long overdue when there was a fundamental reappraisal of just where Australia’s true economic and geopolitical interests lie.

James O’Neill is a barrister at law and geopolitical analyst.  He may be contacted at joneill@qldbar.asn.au.

This is an edited summary of a paper presented to the IPAN conference in Melbourne, 8-10 September 2017.  A complete version of the paper, together with references may be obtained by contacting the author.

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