Testing the Temperature: The Global Significance of the South China Sea Dispute, by Geoffrey Till

Tuesday, 29 November 2011 08:36 quanghung299

Two different approaches to the complex and difficult South China Sea issue have become clear. One, expressed consistently and strongly by the Chinese, is that the issue should be seen only as a local issue, not a global one. Beijing reacted strongly to Hillary Clinton’s expression of the US interest at the ASEAN summit in Vietnam in July 2010.[1] On his official web-site, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly warned against America’s getting involved in the issue, arguing that it would increase regional tensions. ‘What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one ? It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult….The consensus is to have these disputes resolved peacefully through friendly consultations in the interest of peace and stability in the South China sea and good neighbourly relations.’ [2] The South China Sea problem was a local one, and it was only up to the locals to sort it out. With so many claimants to the area, and such complex over-lapping jurisdictional issues to be resolved, the problem was already complicated and sensitive enough; why make things worse by involving other countries with no particular claim on the area ? 


By way of contrast, the early 20th Century strategist Sir Halford Mackinder made many years ago what many would regard as the key point: ‘The unity of the ocean is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.’[3]Because the sea is ‘all joined up’ external countries, outside the immediate region, have a major stake in the management and outcome of the dispute, especially if they are maritime in nature, and so should be expected to want to express their interests in it. For that basic reason, the South China Sea dispute necessarily becomes a global one and the global community has a stake in its peaceful management, and hopefully one day, resolution. ‘One measure of the strength of a community of nations, ‘ said Mrs Clinton is how it responds to threats to its members, neighbours and region.’ [4] The position that the South China Sea dispute was a global one with global implications and consequences was taken further by Robert Gates at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2011. As a result those implications and consequences… are seen as justifying the United States and other outside countries in seeking to maintain a role in defence of their wider interest in the area. Mr Gates was even prepared to bet $100 that for this reason, ‘five years from now the United States’s influence in this region [will be] as strong if not stronger than it is today.’ [5]

So, the question arises, why does the United States and why do other external countries take such an interest in the South China Sea  issue and what is likely to be the consequence of this ?



Read full text of this paper here

[1] It is worth making the point, however, that many aspects of Mrs Clinton’s speech were foreshadowed in a State Department statement of 10 may 1995. Little of the speech should really have come as a surprise.

[2] ‘China Warns US to Stay Out of Islands Dispute’ New York Times, 26 July 2010.

[3] Halford Mackinder, Britain and the British Seas (London: D. Appleton & Co Ltd., 1914) p 12.

[4] ‘US takes on Maritime Spats’ Wall Street Journal 24 July 2010

[5] ‘Not Littorally Shangri-La’ The Economist 9 June 2011.

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