May 11, 2012  Letter to the Editor  The Australian    So the South China Sea is a strategic backwater and not a potential flashpoint of strategic consequence  (“Storm in a Teacup Over South China Sea,” 11/5)?

 Go tell that to the Marines, or rather to the  Commander of the US Pacific Command. The South China Sea contains vital shipping routes carrying  trillions of US dollars in merchandise and oil and gas a year.US Carrier Strike Forces regularly transit its  waters. The South China Sea also hosts a major Chinese naval base on Hainan Island which is home to a  growing force of Chinese nuclear attack submarines and a single ballistic missile nuclear submarine.  China will base more ballistic missile nuclear submarines there in future. China has confronted US  military forces operating near Hainan twice, badly damaging an EP‐3 reconnaissance plane in 2001 and  accosting the USNS Impeccable maritime e surveillance ship in 2009. The South China Sea will remain a  potential flashpoint because China does not accept the right of the US to conduct close in surveillance in  waters off Hainan. Flashpoints must be measured by two criteria – the likelihood of their occurrence and  the consequences. Taylor is right to assert that the South China Sea is unlikely to rise to the magnitude  of destruction that a conflict on the Korean peninsula or Taiwan would produce. But are these conflicts  more likely to occur than a clash between China and the United States in the South China Sea? I do not  think so. Any China‐US clash in the South China Sea would put major strains on their bilateral relations  and impact negatively on the security environment to our north. And strategic analysts should not be so  dismissive about the US‐Philippines alliance because it lacks strategic weight. Any US pullback from  supporting the Philippines would immediately impact on the credibility of US security guarantees to its  allies throughout the Asia‐Pacific. With the US rebalancing its forces the Philippines will carry more  strategic weight than previously.  Carlyle A. Thayer  11 Ambara Place  Aranda, ACT 2614  Phone: (02) 6251 1849   

Storm in teacup over South China Sea | The Australian

by: Brendan Taylor From: The Australian May 11, 2012 12:00AM

THE South China Sea has become Asia's most talked-about regional security flashpoint. As Chinese and Philippine naval vessels continue a month-long standoff in the disputed waters of Scarborough Shoal, commentators have concluded that Beijing's bullying reveals how a more powerful China will behave. Some even regard the South China Sea as a potential trigger for great power conflict between Beijing and Washington. But this so-called crisis is a storm in a teacup. First and foremost, the South China Sea pales in comparison with Asia's two most deadly flashpoints - Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. Richard Bush and Michael O'Hanlon - scholars from the prestigious Brookings Institution - project that a conflict over Taiwan could spark a nuclear war involving 1.5 billion people and produce a fundamental change in the international order. Similar estimates suggest that war on the Korean Peninsula would cost half a million lives and up to $US1 trillion ($994 billion) in the first 90 days. It is difficult to envisage a credible scenario where a skirmish in the South China Sea could erupt into a conflict of such proportions. Beijing's interest in the South China Sea is much less intense than in the case of Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula. Media speculation suggests that Chinese officials refer to the South China Sea as a "core interest" behind closed doors. But the fact that they refuse to do so publicly is more revealing. China's leaders have certainly never been shy referring to Taiwan or Tibet in such terms. The restraint Beijing has shown in the Scarborough Shoal standoff is just as significant. While Manila sent its largest warship to arrest the handful of illegal Chinese fishermen who sparked the dispute, Beijing responded by deploying a couple of much smaller surveillance vessels. To be fair, both sides have engaged diplomatically in an effort to resolve their differences, albeit without much success. This is not to suggest that Beijing wouldn't be willing to "teach Manila a lesson" if push came to shove. Recent remarks to that effect delivered by its normally smooth-talking Vice Foreign Minister, Fu Ying, suggest there is an iron fist inside Beijing's velvet glove. Yet the fact that it has thus far been reluctant to bring its growing military power to bear in this standoff suggests Chinese "core interests" are not at stake. The South China Sea is also not as strategically significant to Washington as many pundits claim. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fuelled speculation to the contrary when she announced to an Asian security meeting in 2010 that the South China Sea was an American "national interest". Yet actions speak louder than words, and Washington's unwillingness to take sides in the Scarborough Shoal standoff suggests otherwise. Likewise, while much has been made of a recent announcement that the US will this year double its foreign military assistance to The Philippines, in actual dollars this amount remains substantially lower than it was almost a decade ago. Nor would the credibility of America's Asian alliance network erode if Washington did not come to Manila's rescue in a clash with Beijing. Everyone knows that America's alliances with Australia, Japan and South Korea are of a completely different order from those it has with Thailand and The Philippines. This is why Washington backed Seoul so robustly in 2010 as the Korean Peninsula spiralled dangerously towards the brink of war, in sharp contrast to its current ambivalence.

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5/11/2012 1:10 PM

Storm in teacup over South China Sea | The Australian

Strategic analysts argue that Indonesia, The Philippines and Vietnam will gradually assume greater significance as the Asian century unfolds. Hence, so too will the South China Sea region they border. Such arguments rest on a belief that Southeast Asian middle powers can serve as effective counterweights to a rising China in an era of contracting US defence budgets. Such conjecture fails to recognise that America's relations with Southeast Asia are about as good as they are going to get. True, these governments have inched closer to the US in response to China's assertiveness. But they are no more likely to run all the way into America's arms than to completely throw their lot in with China. Historic struggles for independence have hard-wired a propensity to maintain equidistance between Asia's great powers - to "hedge" in the security vernacular - almost irrevocably onto their strategic DNA. While deepening ties with Washington, Vietnam simultaneously established a new "Strategic Defence Security Dialogue" with China in 2010 and the two countries last year agreed on principles for settling maritime disputes. Indonesia established a "strategic partnership" with China long before doing so with the US or Australia, while there is evidence of growing foreign policy co-ordination between Beijing and Jakarta. Manila's vocal opposition to China's territorial claims has also been accompanied by closer engagement with Beijing. Washington will lose little sleep over such developments. This is because Southeast Asian countries lack real strategic weight. It will be decades before the largest among them, Indonesia, has the capacity to challenge the Australian Defence Force, let alone tipping the balance between China and the US. Until then, the South China Sea will also remain a strategic backwater. Brendan Taylor is the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

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