Further militarization of the South China Sea, which Vietnam has now joined in thereby following in China’s footsteps, may cause skirmishes and fire exchanges, as well as internationalization of the conflict involving the United States’ Pacific Fleet, polled experts have told TASS.
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Islands of discord
The head of Oriental Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Aleksey Maslov, has explained why the islands in the South China Sea are an old-time apple of discord for countries in Southeast Asia. “For a long time the borders among the countries remained unmarked. In recent decades large offshore oilfields were discovered in the area. The country that enjoys jurisdiction over this or that specific island will be able to extract hydrocarbons in the 20-mile zone around it. Both China and Vietnam have the required technologies,” Maslov said.
For China it is crucial to control the disputed islands in order to ensure the safety of shipping routes from the Persian Gulf that are used to deliver oil to China.
“This explains why Beijing is adamant to enforce its jurisdiction over islands in the South China Sea.
The Hague tribunal’s verdict is not mandatory, though. The fuss over the disputed islands is going on.
Maslov recalls that China and Vietnam have long been at odds over certain issues. Memories of the armed conflict of 1979 are still green in either country and historical and ethnic contradictions are still there.
“In the meantime, Vietnam showed active development over the past few years. Its economy has achieved considerable growth. In a situation like this Vietnamese society has seen growing domestic pressure on the authorities. It wants the government to take a harder line in relations with China to safeguard national interests, including territorial ones,” Maslov said.
Just until recently, he explains, Beijing was hopeful its huge investment in the Chinese economy (up to 90 major joint projects are in progress there) would make Hanoi more pliable. “But Washington has outplayed China. Barack Obama has issued permission to sell newest weapons, including missile complexes, to Vietnam. Hanoi has apparently decided that military muscle is more important than Chinese investment,” he believes.
“Although the US Department of State has expressed concern over the deployment of Vietnamese missiles in the South China Sea, in reality Washington is keen to see China surrounded by a mass of minor troubles,” Maslov said.
“The United States finds fearsome China’s aggressive growth and its active penetration into the European economy. China indisputably rules the roost in Southeast Asia, but Washington argues that Beijing lacks the required degree of responsibility for playing such a role in the region and it is determined to stem Chinese expansion,” he explains.
Skirmishes may evolve into large-scale conflict
Deputy director of the Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis, Aleksandr Khramchikhin, is certain that Hanoi’s rights to control the islands in the South China Sea are no smaller than China’s.
“But not a single country in Southeast Asia will be ready to go to war with China. Nor will the United States go as far as a confrontation with Beijing. But what if a party to the conflict takes a careless move and an unintentional launch of a missile follows? This may spark war,” Khramchikhin speculates.
And Maslov warns that soaring tensions in the South China Sea are a hard fact. “Likely skirmishes and fire exchanges in attempts to enforce one’s jurisdiction over the islands may trigger an armed conflict. Should that happen, the United States may bring its Pacific Fleet to the area. The conflict will be internationalized, and this is something both China and Russia are firmly against. In that case Beijing will be faced with a rather stark choice,” he said.