Route of Contention

Rising nationalism, mutual suspicion and unsettled scores provide the backdrop to a series of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.

While the eyes of the world have been focused on unrest in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, tensions have flared in the South China Sea, a resource-rich region with overlapping sovereignty claims by seven nations.

China has been practicing “gunboat diplomacy.” Its provocative introduction of oil rigs into disputed waters accompanied by several ship-ramming incidents have been described as its “cabbage strategy.” In essence, this has meant surrounding, blocking and intimidating disputed islands (like wrapping them in layers of cabbage) in order to “prevent reinforcements from reaching them” (Walden Bello, “A Brewing Storm in the Western Pacific,” Asia Times Online).

Crucial to global security

With far-flung nations now intertwined economically by globalized trade, the fierce competition to control and defend trade routes and energy sources has spiked. The oceans remain the key element of the international commerce system, as more than 90 percent of all merchant goods are waterborne. Roughly half—$5 trillion of trade annually—goes through the increasingly crowded waters of the South China Sea.

The noose around the neck of the South China Sea is the Strait of Malacca, which is the most important maritime choke point in the world. Every year 60,000 vessels pass through this funnel, which is shallow and, at its narrowest point, just 1.7 miles wide. It is the shortest sea route for oil transported from the Middle East to the burgeoning Pacific Rim economies, notably China, Japan and South Korea.

The oil that passes through the Strait of Malacca is triple the amount that is transported through the Suez Canal and 15 times the total handled by the Panama Canal. Nearly two-thirds of the energy supplies for Japan, Taiwan and South Korea—and roughly 80 percent of China’s crude oil—is imported through the South China Sea. China, which didn’t become a net importer of petroleum until 1993, is now the world’s biggest consumer of energy and second biggest importer of oil.

China will control the sea-lanes into and out of Asia and ultimately the principal arteries of the global economy. In this scenario, weak states will be drawn into China’s sphere of influence, with some of them coming under Beijing’s indirect control. In addition, the South China Sea region has the potential of becoming “the next Persian Gulf.” With documented oil reserves of 7 billion barrels of oil (possibly as much as 130 billion barrels) and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under its waters, the area is an energy gold mine.

This has led to a frenzied international scramble to grab remote islands and colonize them with military structures and airstrips. The waters around the roughly 200 rocky islets, reefs and shoals—of which only three dozen are above water at high tide—in the Spratly and Paracel island chains are the most hotly contested waters in the world. They are potential game changers to energy-poor and -dependent nations.

China’s ascent

The Chinese dragon has emerged from its century of humiliation and slumber to begin changing the strategic map of Asia. Looking to turn its economic heft into global power, China is increasingly going beyond its borders to establish a regional economic and military hegemony that requires projecting power, securing outposts and fending off rivals.

“The material benefits of a growing economy are never enough for aspiring great powers—they also want respect, recognition and influence,” asserts Geoff Dyer, the Financial Times Beijing bureau chief from 2008 to 2011 (Contest of the Century, 2014, p. 8). It’s this “mixture of pride and fear that leads them to build grand navies” (ibid.).

In modernizing its defense capabilities, Beijing’s defense budget has mushroomed eightfold in 20 years. China has become the second largest military spender in the world, outpacing Russia and the United Kingdom combined. While currently still a distant second to the U.S. military, if China’s rate of increase for defense spending continues, it will surpass the U.S. by 2030.

This dramatic growth promises the ultimate prize of East Asian hegemony, with a near-term objective of tilting the balance of power away from the United States. By slowly turning the South and East China Seas into a private Chinese lake, China will control the sea-lanes into and out of Asia and ultimately the principal arteries of the global economy. In this scenario, weak states will be drawn into China’s sphere of influence, with some of them coming under Beijing’s indirect control.

This new age of rivalry has been further aggravated by China’s ambitious application of what it calls “the nine-dash line,” a vague Chinese maritime claim to resource-rich islands nearly a thousand miles from its shores and almost to the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Route of Contention
An old-fashioned arms race

“Just as German soil constituted the military front line of the Cold War,” writes Robert Kaplan, geopolitical strategist and author of Asia’s Cauldron, “the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military front line of the coming decades” (2014, p. 15). An unprecedented Asian arms race may be, according to Kaplan, “one of the most underreported stories in the elite media in decades” (p. 36).

In 2010 India overtook China to become the biggest buyer of U.S. armaments. South Korea and Malaysia have doubled defense spending in the last decade. The Philippines is getting almost $1 billion-worth of new aircraft and radar, while Singapore, a tiny city-state, is now among the world’s top 10 arms importers. Hot sellers include ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced missile systems, drones and cyber warfare.

At the heart of the new arms race are the region’s navies. Vietnam, unwilling to be a vassal state to its colossal neighbor, recently purchased six state-of-the-art Russian Kilo-class submarines. Unable to match China in demographics or naval muscle, competing East Asian nations like Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar have adopted the strategy of using advanced submarines to project the subtle threat of cutting enemy commercial lifelines.

Across Asia submarines are the “new bling,” in the words of Bernard Loo Fook Weng, a Singaporean defense expert (p. 34). Altogether, Asian nations have feverishly ordered 111 submarines to be delivered over the next 15 years. China, already possessing 60, leads the way and has been outbuilding the U.S. submarine fleet by eight to one since 2005 (ibid.).

Japan hears long-suppressed whispers to rearm

Most troubling is Japan, which is reorienting its defense posture to what it sees as a major Chinese threat. Though surrounded by 4 million men mobilized in the neighboring nations of China, Taiwan and the two Koreas, Japan has remained a military eunuch for the last 70 years. Since the end of World War II, Japan, while strong economically, has remained a “toothless tiger,” being the only major nation in the world to have formally renounced war. Even though Japan’s military expenditures are the third largest in the world, its security is largely provided by the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

Japan’s younger generation is worried about their nation’s economic future, and long-suppressed ideas of nationalism are starting to emerge. While the Japan-U.S. relationship has been the key to peace in the region for the past seven decades, some hostility is emerging as skepticism grows about whether the U.S. will continue to place its mutual defense treaty with Japan over its enormous trade relationship with China.

With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe working to alter or reinterpret the Japanese constitution to allow for collective self-defense, long-suppressed whispers for Japan to rearm, perhaps unilaterally and potentially even with nuclear weapons, are being heard.

Change at the gates

“Nationalism, especially that based on race and ethnicity, fired up by territorial claims,” wrote Kaplan in Time, “may be frowned upon in the modern West, but it is alive and well throughout prosperous East Asia” (“Old World Order: How Geopolitics Fuels Endless Chaos and Old-School Conflicts in the 21st Century,” March 31, 2014).

“Distant water can’t put out a nearby fire,” a Chinese proverb goes, and that is how Asian nations are viewing the reduced presence of American forces in the Pacific. Regardless of Washington’s much-hyped “pivot to Asia,” the days of an unchallenged Pax Americana may be drawing to a close. Asian allies are deeply concerned that a U.S. decline, diversion of attention or retreat to isolation could prove massively destabilizing.

Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister and founding father of modern Singapore, gives the following chilling analysis: “The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific because that is where the growth will be. … If the U.S. does not hold its ground in the Pacific, it cannot be a world leader” (Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World, 2012, p. 35).

For centuries, modern commerce has functioned under the umbrella of either the British Royal Navy or the U.S. Navy, which ensured freedom of navigation by controlling the world’s major naval choke points or sea gates. The biblical blessing to Abraham’s descendants to “possess the gate of their enemies” (Genesis 22:17) has been shown through control of key sea gates—the Panama Canal, Suez Canal, Strait of Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Strait of Malacca.

When the British Empire ruled the waves, few nations dared to challenge the supremacy of the Royal Navy as the international policeman. After World War II, the mantle of maritime leadership was passed to America. The freedom of navigation that allowed global commerce to increase exponentially is one physical aspect of how many nations were blessed through Abraham’s blessing (verse 18). (Read more about this in the Life, Hope & Truth article “Blessings of Abraham.”)

But God warned the descendants of Abraham that if they disobeyed Him, they would eventually lose these blessings and “the pride of your power” (Leviticus 26:18-19).

With China’s shadow looming larger and the American presence waning in the Asian seascape, the Bible shows that we will likely see another global powerhouse—in Europe this time—step up to the economic and military forefront to challenge for preeminence.

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About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.