Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 17 April 2020


Beijing quietly maps South China Sea bed to harvest mineral riches

About $5 trillion of international trade sails the South China Sea every year
About $5 trillion of international trade sails the South China Sea every year
China is using a scientific ship to explore the South China Sea in what the United States has called an appalling attempt to exploit the confusion caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
A government ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, has sailed to the coast of Borneo after surveying the sea bed off Vietnam. America claims that China is trying to consolidate its disputed claims to sovereignty over the strategic waters.
The incident comes after the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese coastguard vessel near the Paracel Islands, a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea. The sinking provoked an angry reaction from Washington, which accused China of exploiting the pandemic.
“It is appalling that [China] is exploiting the world’s focus on addressing this global pandemic to assert its unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea,” Morgan Ortagus, the state department spokeswoman, said. “This incident is the latest in a long string of [Chinese] actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea.”
About $5 trillion of international trade sails the South China Sea every year. This includes the oil that fuels the economies of China, Japan and South Korea.
The hundreds of reefs and small islands in the region are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Since 2014, however, Beijing has strengthened its claim to virtually the entire sea by concreting over reefs to build military airports equipped with radar, missiles and aircraft.
In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague struck down China’s claims to rocks and reefs close to the Philippines.
Beijing indignantly rejects any challenges to its sovereignty.
During the coronavirus pandemic, China has announced new “research stations” on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, tiny geographical features that it has transformed into stationary aircraft carriers. Satellite photographs show that China’s People’s Liberation Army has built runways and radar. It can now deploy offensive weapons such as combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 spent months last year exploring parts of the sea claimed by Vietnam, accompanied by armed coastguard vessels.
The “scientific” surveys are widely considered to be aimed at consolidating China’s claims to be the rightful owner of virtually all the South China Sea and to gather data about the potential energy resources under the seabed.
The possibility that China could exert a chokehold on shipping through the South China Sea is alarming to many governments. Short of using military force, however, there is little that can be done to reverse China’s gains.
“What is pretty obvious is China’s not going to stop,” Gregory Poling, of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington think tank, said.
“If a global pandemic doesn’t cause China to calm things down in the South China Sea, there’s not much that will.”

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