Foreign Minister Winston Peters has called for greater US involvement in the South Pacific.
OPINION: The menacing strategic power projection of China in the Asia-Pacific region continues unabated while international attention is focused on the uncertainties of events in the Middle East, the political dogfight in Washington DC and Brexit.
The surfacing of a Chinese ballistic missile submarine recently among a fleet of Vietnamese fishing boats off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, 300km from its home base on China’s Hainan Island, was a stark reminder to Asean, Canberra and Wellington of the country’s growing naval power.
Precisely why it surfaced among the fishing boats is unclear. Suggestions range from intimidation to a more benign claim that it may have been endangered by an underwater spread of fishermen’s trawling nets.
Coming as it did, however, following a series of incidents involving Chinese naval and/or coastguard armed vessels mingling with fishing fleets from Asean nations in disputed territorial waters, the presence of the powerful undersea war machine in the area graphically illustrated the prospect of heightened tensions in the region – a prospect certain to be covered during informal discussion at next week’s East Asian summit meeting to be attended by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
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Malaysia’s foreign minister, Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah, recently warned that Malaysia needs to boost its naval capabilities to prepare for possible conflict in the South China Sea.
It is one of four Asean countries in dispute with China over sovereignty claims to areas of the sea. The others are Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei. Ongoing incidents are frequent, especially around the 130 Paracel Islands half way between China and Vietnam. A Vietnamese leader referred last month to “opportunities and challenges in the South China Sea” where he would “tenaciously defend his nation’s rights”.
More than a third of global shipping passes through the area in dispute, which China, in a White Paper published last July, declared was an “inalienable” part of its territory.
China was, according to the document, exercising its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs of the sea.
Reports of China’s activities in the area talk of the construction of runways up to 3000 metres in length on three of the islands, construction of fuel and ammunition storage depots and radar installations.
But the Chinese claims to sovereignty were rejected by an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague in 2016. It said the Chinese claimed boundary, termed “the nine dash line”, had no basis in international law under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Beijing refused to accept the ruling and presses on with Asean nations to negotiate a Code of Conduct for resolution of disputes which it hopes to conclude in 2021. The Asean states are working on it as individual nations rather than as a collective grouping. This reflects the differing perceptions among the 10 member grouping of their interests in dealing with Beijing.
US warships regularly patrol the disputed areas to emphasise Washington’s view that the area of the South China Sea claimed by China is extreme and that it is an international waterway open to all shipping.
It is against this background and the reports of Beijing seeking management of a deep water port in the Solomon Islands that the calls by Foreign Minister Winston Peters for greater US involvement in the South Pacific takes on renewed significance.
The US, Australia and New Zealand, in similar fashion to Asean, face the diplomatically intricate task of dealing with Beijing’s claims on the one hand of pursuing dialogue to defuse tensions; and on the other projecting its military clout with a persistence that provokes unease.
A key to the approach of both Asean members and the Tasman duo is likely to be the trust they feel able to place in assurances of a willing ongoing Pacific security approach by Washington in view of Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine.
Without “surety” of the strength of US commitment to stability in the South Pacific and East Asia, the diplomatic balancing of New Zealand’s trade and security interests is likely to be fully tested. The presence of a submarine among fishing boats underlines the test ahead.
Bruce Kohn was the Washington correspondent for the New Zealand Press Association from 1970 to 1975.