Geography still matters, especially for economics and politics, and in these aspects Asia plays a prominent role. Asia is the world’s largest continent and generally looked at in segments based on geography; as East Asia, South Asia etc. Many scholars predict that the region would play a vital role in the years to come in terms of military presence and probability of conflict. Territorial and coastal disputes are highly likely and tensions in the South China Sea today are indicators of such scenarios. This is mainly fueled by the growing Chinese military reach, expanding militaries of smaller countries and the paranoia of the United States about these matters. In shifting political tides, even smaller countries like Sri Lanka have an important role to play.
Spratly Islands consist of about 100 small islands in the South China Sea, and recently have become vital in terms of politics and territorial disputes. These islands are located in fish rich seas, and potentially gas and oil deposits. However the excess fishing in the area is threatening the fish stock around the islands. About 45 of them are occupied by military personnel of China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and recently by Malaysia and the Philippines. Only economic activities around these islands are commercial fishing by these countries.
One of the main reasons behind political tensions regarding the South China Sea is China’s initiative of building artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. China has created 8 new artificial islands in the last year. Even though China has halted their operations now, the initiative and the progress made did cause considerable friction between the ASEAN states, United States and China.
The United States claims that China’s actions are a threat for freedom of navigation and a violation of International Maritime Law. On these grounds Beijing and Washington have been in a cat-and-mouse game in the past few months which started with U.S. dispatching a P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft close to one of the artificial islands which was ordered by Chinese military to “leave immediately”. There is a history where Chinese forces have confronted U.S. surveillance vessels in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which is 200nm from the coast. Each of these situations has been handled diplomatically but with the new islands, it is interesting to see how the maritime law plays out.
It is difficult to apply economic benefits to explain China’s push towards these land reclamation projects. If at any significance, most of the natural resources are outside areas of China’s focus. However applying military strategy provides us with better answers to this question. China has already built a runaway on Fiery Cross Reef and increased military presence in the area.
Outposts in this area give great mobility to Chinese naval vessels as well as aircrafts. Helipads in these areas would multiply the efficiency of China’s air based anti- submarine unit. And each of these outposts could act as refueling and re-supply hubs which would give an advantage to their vessels in time of need. This new reach gives China advantage of one of world’s most prominent Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) which accounts to some $5 trillion in trade and the lifeline for China’s regional rival; Japan.
Even though initially China has been vague and brief about any justification of her actions, on the 9th April the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the following about the purpose of the islands.
[O]ptimizing their functions, improving the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, as well as better performing China’s international responsibility and obligation in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas.
The implications and the accountability of such an explanation still remain untested.
Flexing Naval Muscle
Many issues that have strategic implications have a ‘causal and effect’ mechanism which works along a central issue. With tensions in the South China Sea and the media coverage about the importance of the area and the propensity for future conflict, other nation-states are trying their hand at expanding naval capabilities.
Vietnam’s navy is acquiring advanced frigates from Russia and Netherlands, Russian submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles. The Philippines has almost doubled its fleet of surface combat vessels over the past few years. Malaysia is adding new advanced submarines to their fleet and new frigates. These are few examples of the Asian military expansions underway.
Logistic, technical and operational limitations should be taken into consideration by these states before indulging in costly military transactions. Simply, peer competition is not legitimate enough for such expansionist policies but if these states do foresee a threat to national interest, it adds to our argument of the instability in the region.
India and Australia will embark on their first bilateral naval exercise which will be based on anti-submarine warfare. This was mainly triggered with increasing Chinese submarine presence in the region. Over the past year India has been nudged by worries regarding Chinese submarine deployment in the Indian ocean. A visit by a Chinese Song Class submarine to the Colombo port last October sparked slight political tensions between Sri Lanka and India during which India accused Sri Lanka of violating existing protocols. This was topped off with a Chinese Yuan Class submarine visiting Karachi, Pakistan. The increasing ties between Pakistan and China are another burden over Indian analysts and leadership.
How Sri Lanka handled the tensions regarding the Submarine issue clearly made a statement regarding the country’s political alliance. However with the changes in Sri Lankan politics recently, India and the United States seem to be having the upper hand in forming new ties. This sort of switching of power alliances has been rare since the end of the cold war. Sri Lanka is situated in the heart of one of the world’s busiest maritime routes and even historically been significant for her location. Sri Lankan leadership should not underestimate the leverage they hold over any power bloc rather they need to understand the potential which the country could benefit from, under the circumstances. The island symbolizes the importance of small nation states in global politics as global powers try to extend their reach. The United States have found significant interest in Sri Lanka especially with their top priority security threat in the region; China. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry visited the island in May 2015 signifies the attempt to ease ties between the countries. Nonetheless Sri Lankan leadership should not completely shut doors to the Chinese. 14% of Sri Lanka’s imports are from China and Chinese construction companies are indulged in infrastructure projects within the country. This highlights China’s economic importance to the small $74 billion (2014) economy of Sri Lanka.
Geopolitics will take an interesting turn over the next few years, especially in areas such as Asia. The changing political dynamics however gives smaller countries like Sri Lanka some leverage over negotiations which should be capitalized to further development processes. This needs to be internalized by both Washington and Beijing which will likely continue to expand their reach over the geographic space.