The doyen of American strategic and diplomatic fraternity, Henry Kissinger wrote a compelling and insightful book “On China”. A must-read for students and practitioners of history and statecraft, the book traces the excursion of the country from antiquity to modernity. What makes the book relevant is the author’s experience in diplomacy, especially with regard to China, for Kissinger along with General Yahya, were linchpins in the watershed thaw between USA and China in 1971. Kissinger explained Chinese strategic thought as hinging upon their game “Wei qi” and the concepts of Sun Tzu.

Wei qi as opposed to chess, derides the Clausewitzian concept of accumulating strength towards a center of gravity in a decisive battle aimed at total victory, and teaches the art of encirclement. The game is about taking strides in open spaces to thwart strategic threats posed by adversaries.

China, as of this writing, is a state with ever-increasing sinews of national power, something which puts her at loggerheads with its neighbors and the preponderant United States. China is leveraging its clout in the South China Sea, an area which has many claimants, so to speak. Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan are the other contenders to control the strategically central South China Sea.

Sun Tzu too was averse to ostentatious acts of valor on the battlefields but aimed at weakening the enemy by maneuvering and deception. He laid great emphasis on mastering the “shi” or the strategic trend to psychologically overpower the enemy.

China, as of this writing, is a state with ever-increasing sinews of national power, something which puts her at loggerheads with its neighbors and the preponderant United States. China is leveraging its clout in the South China Sea, an area which has many claimants, so to speak. Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan are the other contenders to control the strategically central South China Sea.

A potentially incendiary maritime conflict has merited a lot of attention from the US. In a recent statement by Secretary of State, John Kerry, it was stressed upon China to stop hindering navigation and over flight.

In addition, ASEAN member states deemed China’s land reclamation activities as subversive and dangerous. Responding vociferously, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi quashed all allegations leveled by claimant states and the US.  He reiterated the stance that islands in the South China Sea are China’s territories.

The most worrisome phenomenon is that in the past few years the likelihood of Sino-US armed conflict has increased. The US operates in China’s EEZ, holding that it is permissible under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has defenestrated such claims and has on many instances intercepted American reconnaissance flights.

The war of words is a reflection of brewing tensions in the region. The main contention is the land reclamation on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by China. Island –building has been done in the past by Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, with the former two securing them through little military presence.  Despite being a late entrant in the reclamation spree, China has set the cat amongst the pigeons by not only its efforts to build the island, but to have a heavy military footprint to gain a strategic edge. This is pretty much commensurate with Wei qi, as the player (China) is moving into open spaces to attain a favorable initiative. It is imperative to dabble into the advantages that China can reap by controlling swaths of territory in the South China Sea.

As a burgeoning power, China needs to meet its ever-increasing energy needs. Sovereignty over the region has the potential of giving China access to abundant reserves of natural gas. Moreover, it must be accentuated that China could dominate a major trading route, which will consequently perch China in a driving seat in more ways than one.

If China positions itself as the major hegemonic force in the South China Sea, it can prevail upon the five other claimants owing to it, having an absolute advantage in terms of military power.

To realize these goals, China has done enough to ring alarm bells. In pursuance of its vital interests, China has been undeterred in upping the ante in the seas, be it the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 or the southwards incursions along what China calls the “nine dash line”.

Such actions have been considered as bellicose by Vietnam, Philippines and other countries vying for a foothold in the South China Sea. Such apprehensions are veritable, to say the least. China has ameliorated its maritime paramilitary forces and naval prowess along modern lines to lend potency to its footings in the area. Furthermore, the aim of this build-up is to keep the US naval forces at bay.

China has augmented its military setup as part of its efforts to bolster its claims in the area. It is a classic case of the aforementioned Wei qi, as China has adeptly intruded into open spaces to limit strategic options for its nemeses.

What could be the ramifications of seemingly aggressive posturing on the sea? The milieu could change drastically if blusters escalate into pinpricks. The trade and economic significance of the Asia-Pacific has made confrontation and instability costlier. Additionally, it has made the US a major stakeholder in the conflict.

The US has a multitude of interest in the containment of brinkmanship in the region. It can ill-afford hostilities in the sea, for it needs freedom of navigation and a pavement for unimpeded trade. In addition, the US has its credibility at stake if it is unable to deal with China’s so-called outrageous activities of land reclamation. The US will have to tread carefully in a quest to counter the evolving situation in a way that does not strain its ties with China to an extent that it is unable to garner its support in combating important global issues.

Moreover, the brewing fissures between China and the Philippines; any ingression by the Chinese necessitates the invocation of the US-Philippines mutual defense treaty of 1951, wherein the US forces could be drawn into active combat with China.

The most worrisome phenomenon is that in the past few years the likelihood of Sino-US armed conflict has increased. The US operates in China’s EEZ, holding that it is permissible under the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). China has defenestrated such claims and has on many instances intercepted American reconnaissance flights. Though China and the US are not in a state of war with each other, but still the famous “fog of war” proponed by Carl Von Clausewitz may precipitate an incendiary armed clash, which will have ominous repercussions on the even otherwise unstable region.

There is also a great chance of skirmishes with contenders like Vietnam, who despite having a frail defense apparatus as compared to China, is determined to defend its interests.

One can befittingly observe that China has increased its strategic advantage by playing on the feeble points of its actual and potential adversaries. The Philippines, Vietnam and other countries roughing it out for a hold in the South China Sea lack the military muscle to challenge China. Hence, China has augmented its military setup as part of its efforts to bolster its claims in the area. It is a classic case of the aforementioned Wei qi, as China has adeptly intruded into open spaces to limit strategic options for its nemeses.

It must be broached upon all actors involved that any attempts to beef-up tensions will have grave impact on the security and stability of the region, which is a pivot for trade and connectivity. The clash of vital interests compel states to resort to wars, thus concerted efforts must be made to de-escalate this simmering crisis. China and the US must take the lead role in the process; the former must curtail further military –related developments whereas the latter should press for sincere dialogue on the issue as it exercises influence over its partner nations.

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    Beddoun Issm Reply

    September 21, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Interesting piece of writing.

    However, I would advice the author to do dwell upon the upcoming Indian presence in the South China Sea (SCS).

    1. India is assisting Vietnam to develop offshore rigs for Vietnam and provide it maritime security infrastructure and trainings. Oddly enough, Vietnam has the maximum number of SCS features under her control as opposed to Chinese.

    2. India is also in the process of forging military to military (Naval) primarily relations with Philippines. Several MoUs have been signed between the two governments to this end.

    3. India has been regularly invited to ASEAN moots to boost her image in the region as a valid counter balance to Chinese dreaded presence in the region.

    4. Indian Naval wargames have been concluded in the Bay of Bengal, with Australians, Thai and Malaysian Navies.

    5. Brunei Darussalam is a tiny Islamic country with huge interests in the SCS region. US and other Western Powers are systematically and willfully ignoring the justified concerns of the Govt of Brunei. This is prime reason, Pakistan should adopt a rather forward looking, proactive maritime foreign policy and assist the Brunei in their legitimate security concerns. Trainings of Military personnel, provisioning of military sales and possibly setting up of Naval, Air Force or Army Bases on Brunei can be considered as a beginning step in this regard. A regular visit of Pakistani Naval Frigate and a Submarine could also be initiated.

    6. Thanks to Pakistan, China is already becoming a Two Ocean Power. It is the best time for Pakistan to re-evaluate her ‘defensive’ paradigm and adopt a more robust approach to safeguard her interests and the interests of her allies in the region, even if it manifests beyond the Strait of Malacca.

    Yea yea, I know………………. Pakistan was a small country with terrible security situation, limited means, apparently no interest in the Indian Ocean region and all. But it is all about to change. It is in the best interest of Pakistan and world at large that Indian ocean does not become India’s ocean only ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

    You write really well anyway. Shabash.

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