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Published on August 8th, 2012 | by Harry Evans
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="566"] Jiangwei class frigate in Shanghai naval base © ThePointblank[/caption]   The easiest analogy to use to convey the nature of the South China Sea dispute is the neighbour's fence analogy. Two neighbours live side-by-side, and they feel free to cross over into one another's garden and no challenge is made by either. Over time, however, it becomes obvious that some rare metal is hidden in some areas of the ground. It suddenly is very important for the neighbours to build a fence to determine which areas of metal belongs to who. The stronger neighbour lays claim to as much as their fence can possibly fit. In justification, he states that he once planted some poppies near his neighbour's house so he is entitled to that area too. The weaker neighbour is left with a few paltry nuggets of the precious metal, and very little leverage to overturn the decision. [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300"] Maritime claims in the South China Sea © Quigley[/caption] In the neighbour's fence analogy, China is the strong neighbour. Except China has done this on both sides of the garden: with the weaker neighbours in the region being the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei being affected by China's proposed fence. The territorial claims by China are vast in the Sea, and essentially stake a claim to all of it, reserving only small coastline areas for the other states. The two main disputes are between China and the Philippines and China and Vietnam, and China's claim is primarily based on the presence of small controlled islands far from its shores. Earlier this year, there was a standoff between Philippine and Chinese fleets over the contested 'Scarborough Shoal', where the dispute escalated to the point of spilling over. The Shoal is situated within Philippine waters, and this is supported by International Law, however, the Chinese have made an historical claim: the entire South China Sea was mapped by the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. The colonial attitude is outdated, especially when one regards the extent of British and Spanish sea exploration. The Scarborough Shoal incident was punctuated by the arrival of the USS North Carolina, a submarine, docking in a Philippine port near the disputed shoal. The symbolism was unmistakeable: a reminder of the strong US-Philippine cooperation that permeated the Pacific at the end of the last century. The posturing was not lost on China either and it has been clear that the US is to look after its interest in the South China Sea. The sea dispute bubbled over just days ago, when China announced plans to create a prefecture of a small island group called the Paracel islands in the south of the waters, aiming to strengthen territorial demands. In addition to a new city, there is to be an army garrison constructed on the strategically significant cluster. The islands are home to only a few hundred people. The US state department announced its concern over these plans, which, it states, are contrary to positive measures of peace. This led to a US diplomat being called to Beijing and broadsided for the United States' condemnation. The diplomat was informed that the US should 'shut up' regarding matters of Chinese territorial sovereignty. China blames the US for stoking the tensions in Vietnam, which has led to recent protests. The introduction of the US as another player in this game of battleships is possibly not for the best. The US has announced it wishes to maintain free trade in a region that sees plenty of goods passing through, but it is likely to be seen as expressing colonial attitudes. Its behaviour so far, with Hilary Clinton calling disputed territory the 'West Philippine sea', has had a touch of cold war psychology about it. The problem of balance in the negotiations comes with all the countries involved being reliant on China for trade. Unfortunately, China's recent actions demonstrate that it feels the South China Sea is vital for both its strategic and commercial aims. Important reserves of gas and oil are ripe for the picking, and the region's fisheries are important for maintaining a Chinese self-sufficiency. China needs to ensure it does not become over-reliant on imports if it wishes to become the leading power in the world. But China relies on exports too: a rapid rate of militarising the South China Sea would have a negative impact on exports in a region with which China enjoys considerable free-trade benefits. So China must play its cards carefully: and it has done so cleverly by making this into a bilateral dispute between China and the US. This clouds the issue with matters of cold war politics that are really very far from the real concerns over China bullying and making unreasonable and weak claims over the waters. The focus should be on this, and the US should be careful not to take the spotlight away from the South China Sea. The Chinese actions may be sinister and need to be scrutinised without being shadowed by US heavy-handedness. The neighbour's fence scenario requires rigorous scrutiny from the courts, not an armed vigilante from up the street.

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Fencing in the South China Sea

Jiangwei class frigate in Shanghai naval base © ThePointblank

 

The easiest analogy to use to convey the nature of the South China Sea dispute is the neighbour’s fence analogy. Two neighbours live side-by-side, and they feel free to cross over into one another’s garden and no challenge is made by either. Over time, however, it becomes obvious that some rare metal is hidden in some areas of the ground. It suddenly is very important for the neighbours to build a fence to determine which areas of metal belongs to who. The stronger neighbour lays claim to as much as their fence can possibly fit. In justification, he states that he once planted some poppies near his neighbour’s house so he is entitled to that area too. The weaker neighbour is left with a few paltry nuggets of the precious metal, and very little leverage to overturn the decision.

Maritime claims in the South China Sea © Quigley

In the neighbour’s fence analogy, China is the strong neighbour. Except China has done this on both sides of the garden: with the weaker neighbours in the region being the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei being affected by China’s proposed fence. The territorial claims by China are vast in the Sea, and essentially stake a claim to all of it, reserving only small coastline areas for the other states. The two main disputes are between China and the Philippines and China and Vietnam, and China’s claim is primarily based on the presence of small controlled islands far from its shores.

Earlier this year, there was a standoff between Philippine and Chinese fleets over the contested ‘Scarborough Shoal’, where the dispute escalated to the point of spilling over. The Shoal is situated within Philippine waters, and this is supported by International Law, however, the Chinese have made an historical claim: the entire South China Sea was mapped by the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century. The colonial attitude is outdated, especially when one regards the extent of British and Spanish sea exploration.

The Scarborough Shoal incident was punctuated by the arrival of the USS North Carolina, a submarine, docking in a Philippine port near the disputed shoal. The symbolism was unmistakeable: a reminder of the strong US-Philippine cooperation that permeated the Pacific at the end of the last century. The posturing was not lost on China either and it has been clear that the US is to look after its interest in the South China Sea. The sea dispute bubbled over just days ago, when China announced plans to create a prefecture of a small island group called the Paracel islands in the south of the waters, aiming to strengthen territorial demands. In addition to a new city, there is to be an army garrison constructed on the strategically significant cluster. The islands are home to only a few hundred people.

The US state department announced its concern over these plans, which, it states, are contrary to positive measures of peace. This led to a US diplomat being called to Beijing and broadsided for the United States’ condemnation. The diplomat was informed that the US should ‘shut up’ regarding matters of Chinese territorial sovereignty. China blames the US for stoking the tensions in Vietnam, which has led to recent protests.

The introduction of the US as another player in this game of battleships is possibly not for the best. The US has announced it wishes to maintain free trade in a region that sees plenty of goods passing through, but it is likely to be seen as expressing colonial attitudes. Its behaviour so far, with Hilary Clinton calling disputed territory the ‘West Philippine sea’, has had a touch of cold war psychology about it. The problem of balance in the negotiations comes with all the countries involved being reliant on China for trade. Unfortunately, China’s recent actions demonstrate that it feels the South China Sea is vital for both its strategic and commercial aims. Important reserves of gas and oil are ripe for the picking, and the region’s fisheries are important for maintaining a Chinese self-sufficiency. China needs to ensure it does not become over-reliant on imports if it wishes to become the leading power in the world. But China relies on exports too: a rapid rate of militarising the South China Sea would have a negative impact on exports in a region with which China enjoys considerable free-trade benefits.

So China must play its cards carefully: and it has done so cleverly by making this into a bilateral dispute between China and the US. This clouds the issue with matters of cold war politics that are really very far from the real concerns over China bullying and making unreasonable and weak claims over the waters. The focus should be on this, and the US should be careful not to take the spotlight away from the South China Sea. The Chinese actions may be sinister and need to be scrutinised without being shadowed by US heavy-handedness. The neighbour’s fence scenario requires rigorous scrutiny from the courts, not an armed vigilante from up the street.

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About the Author

Harry Evans

Harry is a recent Philosophy graduate from the University of York. He is taking a Master’s in European Studies next year at UCL and has a particular interest in Scandinavian politics and economy. His time is currently spent undertaking an internship, researching and writing a history of the University of York Philosophy department. At University, he was editor of the student Philosophy journal, and has been published by the Club of PEP journal. Harry is hoping to make a career in International Relations and Journalism, and writes for Catch21 in this capacity. For more information and updates follow @hevans567 or find him on LinkedIn. You can also read more from this author on their personal blog.



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