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Calming the South China Sea

CANBERRA – The South China Sea – long regarded, together with the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula, as one of East Asia’s three major flashpoints – is making waves again. China’s announcement of a troop deployment to the Paracel Islands follows a month in which competing territorial claimants heightened their rhetoric, China’s naval presence in disputed areas became more visible, and the Chinese divided the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose foreign ministers could not agree on a communiqué for the first time in 45 years.

All of this has jangled nerves – as did similar military posturing and diplomatic arm wrestling from 2009 to mid-2011. Little wonder: stretching from Singapore to Taiwan, the South China Sea is the world’s second-busiest sea-lane, with one-third of global shipping transiting through it.

More neighboring states have more claims to more parts of the South China Sea – and tend to push those claims with more strident nationalism – than is the case with any comparable body of water. And now it is seen as a major testing ground for Sino-American rivalry, with China stretching its new wings, and the United States trying to clip them enough to maintain its own regional and global primacy.

The legal and political issues associated with the competing territorial claims – and the marine and energy resources and navigation rights that go with them – are mind-bogglingly complex. Future historians may well be tempted to say of the South China Sea question what Lord Palmerston famously did of Schleswig-Holstein in the nineteenth century: “Only three people have ever understood it. One is dead, one went mad, and the third is me – and I’ve forgotten.”