Before someone decides to rename this blog "Center for Middle Eastern Conflict and Peace," let us move to the diplomatic standoff between China and both the Philippines and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. For the past few days, angry words have been traded between Beijing, Manila, and Hanoi over clashes between Chinese "fishing boats" and Vietnamese exploration vessels.
The situation is dicey because the status of the Spratly Islands is currently under dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia, and even Brunei. The reason? It is strategically positioned, right in the middle of commercial shipping lanes and one of the world's most productive areas for fishing. Still, the best part is that it has tons of oil and natural gas (fourth largest reserve bed in the world), with major windfalls for energy-hungry Asian nations.
While the dispute has been ongoing for decades, it is only in the past few years that the surrounding countries have started to complain that China is overtly aggressive in staking its claim over the islands. Even though at this point it is still doubtful whether China is capable to dominate the entire islands with its current strength vis-a-vis an alliance of the states with claims over the islands, what important here is the calculation of the states that China's power will keep increasing, and correspondingly, also its territorial appetites. Thus, it is better to complain bitterly and loudly today, to attract the attention of the only power that is capable of balancing against China at this point of time, which is the United States.
Not surprisingly, when departing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates attended the Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore, he found both General Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnam’s defense minister, and his counterpart from Philippines, Mr. Voltaire, Gazmin were clamoring for a greater American presence in the region. Regardless of the tumultuous past between the U.S. and Vietnam, the Vietnamese have been busy courting the U.S., and both countries have even staged a joint military exercise. The Philippines also have mostly abandoned their anti-U.S. position and embraced America, which, they believe, could bring the stability to the region.
At this point, China is experiencing what the U.S. had experienced right after the end of the Cold War, that its neighbors suddenly find themselves living next to a 8,000 ton gorilla. With the world perceiving America's power as declining, thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not to mention the subprime mortgage mess, everyone is starting to take a second look at China.
It is true that China's trade is growing, and that people grow rich from trading with China. China is willing to trade with anyone and anywhere, uncaring about all these human rights hassles, which is a welcomed development by isolated countries such as Myanmar. On the other hand, people are also starting to complain that low-cost Chinese goods starting to flood the local markets and that Chinese corporations exploit countries all over the world (sound familiar?).
Even though China has been assuring its neighbors that in its thousands years of history, China has never embarked on an expansionist foreign policy, it is still seen a growing threat by everyone in the neighborhood. China is no longer seen as a partner to balance the brash, uncontrollable, and unilateral United States, but a future threat that may surpass the U.S. and dominate the world, starting with its immediate neighborhood.
Thus, these concerns are at the root of the current conflict on Spratly.