A court case over whether some rocks in the South China Sea count as islands doesn’t seem like it could lead to a world war. But nor did the assassination of an Austro Hungarian archduke by Serbian nationalists a century ago.
While neither side is in any rush to escalate militarily, economic rivalry makes it difficult for either to back down.
The South China Sea is surrounded by nations that claim large parts of it—they include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan. China’s rulers claim 80 percent of its area, up to what they call the “nine dash line”.
Repeated standoffs between Chinese ships and those of the US and its regional allies are the background to a ruling in The Hague this month.
The Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which found that China’s claims have no basis under the United Nations’ Law of the Sea.
The Philippine government has been sabre-rattling as well as suing. It declared last year that it would now refer to the South China Sea only as the Philippine Sea.
Yet in court it was a proxy for the US, which couldn’t sue China itself. It refuses to ratify the Law of the Sea because it doesn’t want to be bound by international rulings.
But not recognising the court hasn’t stopped the US rushing to enforce its ruling.
It sent warships to uphold “freedom of navigation”. Chinese warplanes flew over them in retaliation.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi warned, “History will prove who is a mere guest and who is a real host.”
Nationalist protesters in China rallied outside KFC restaurants and smashed Apple phones, calling for a boycott of US firms.
Chinese ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming accused the US of trying to “humiliate China diplomatically” and “challenge China’s sovereignty”.
And US ambassador to China Max Baucus said, “We’re in a whole new chapter here. The old chapter was talk … We’re past that. The new chapter is actions.”
Britain and France both say they could send ships to join the US operation.
Since 2013 at least two US destroyers have been in the South China Sea at any one time.
China says it will make military air patrols “regular practice”.
Several years of mobilisation by both sides mean their soldiers’ rifles now point at each other across just a few dozen kilometres of sea.
So what makes the South China Sea such a glittering prize?
Part of it is resources.
The rapid collapse of global fisheries has intensified competition for fishing rights.
A series of standoffs started with challenges to fishing boats.
Other battles have been over the rich gas and oil deposits believed to lie under the sea floor.
Chinese vessels clashed with Vietnamese and Norwegian survey ships in 2011.
In 2014 a Chinese oil platform provoked a blockade by 29 Vietnamese ships. One was rammed and sunk.
But even if there was nothing under its surfaces, this sea would matter simply for its location.
It contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
It is the route for most of China’s trade and its vital energy supplies.
As China’s main link with the rest of the world, this sea can be its launchpad for projecting influence abroad. But it could also be its weak spot.
The Pentagon’s plan for a potential military confrontation with China is based on naval supremacy. It involves swift capture of the South China Sea followed by attacks on China’s navy and coastal installations.
This AirSea Battle doctrine was developed to counter China’s moves toward what military wonks call “A2/AD—anti-access area denial”. This is based on China having enough defences to keep any unwanted forces from entering the area.
China’s rulers consider this part of its “core sovereignty”, and have developed naval anti-aircraft missile systems to neutralise US threats.
Fuelling the scramble is a tension between a military balance of power inherited from the 20th century and an economic balance of power emerging in the 21st century.
China’s economic influence is growing worldwide. Yet the US remains the only global military superpower.
China’s rise and the West’s relative economic decline intensifies pressure on China’s rulers to break the US stranglehold—and on the US to “contain” China.
There are strong parallels to early 20th century Europe.
The vast empires of stagnating Britain, France and Russia put booming powerhouse Germany at a disadvantage.
That tension exploded into world war. Huge alliances expected to prevent conflict only made it more intense when it did break out.
Today the world is sleepwalking in the same direction. Only a break from an imperialist system built on competition and militarism can guarantee to wake it up.
Redrawing the map with artificial islands
Maritime law designates huge swathes of territory on a technical distinction. States can claim 200km of sea territory around islands, but only 12km around rocks.
Instead of rewriting that law, the Chinese state has been redrawing the map.
For two years it has been dredging up sand from the ocean floor and turning submerged reefs into artificial islands.
Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly group of islands had only a few rocks jutting above the waves.
Now it’s a huge base with four basketball courts, two tennis courts and a running track. It also has a 1.8 mile-long runway, missile batteries, barracks and radar.
The US estimates China has created 3,200 acres of new land on seven islands in the Spratlys. That’s compared to just 50 acres for all the other claimants put together.
US Pacific Command head Admiral Harry Harris Junior calls this the “Great Wall of Sand”.
Next could be Scarborough Shoal just off the Philippines. The Hague ruling bans this island building, but navy chief Wu Shengli said China “will never give up halfway”.
US in decline but dangerous
In the rural South Korean town of Seongju, local councillors went on hunger strike and wrote angry letters in their own blood last month.
Plans to build a new missile defence system nearby had triggered this wave of protests.
Targeting North Korea, it’s a joint venture with the US government built by US firm Lockheed Martin. Fears of economic retaliation from China, South Korea’s main trading partner but North Korea’s ally, saw shares plummet.
The US is out to reverse the slow reduction of its military forces in the region since the Cold War.
The Philippines opened five military bases for use by US aircraft this year—two decades after kicking them out. The US could soon return to Da Nang base in Vietnam after 40 years.
US colony Guam is set for a huge new base with almost 5,000 marines ready to intervene in the region. They’ll join troops that never left—including 28,500 in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan.
US president Barack Obama announced this “pivot to Asia” in 2011. Progress has been slow.
His plan relied on reducing US military commitments in the Middle East. Disastrous defeats and subsequent chaos made this hard to deliver.
These wars have also spread anti-war sentiment in the US. Both hard right racist Donald Trump and left wing Bernie Sanders won support partly through appealing to this.
The economic pivot underlying the military one is equally troubled.
The US is pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with twelve countries but not China.
On the same model as the proposed TTIP trade deal with the European Union, TPP would entrench corporate power.
But its main purpose is to demonstrate US commitment to its links with the region, reassuring allies and reducing their economic dependence on China.
It’s a diplomatic priority for the US ruling class—yet both main presidential candidates have pledged to scrap it.
This US ambivalence is one reason why many of its allies are keen to maintain regional “consensus” and are wary of antagonising China. It puts the pivot strategy under even more pressure.
US imperialism’s relative decline doesn’t make it less dangerous. But movements against war and neoliberalism can make a crucial difference.