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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > What does pushing and shoving in the South China sea mean to the global economy? Part Two

What does pushing and shoving in the South China sea mean to the global economy? Part Two

What does pushing and shoving in the South China sea mean to the global economy? Part Two Anthony Harrington

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In Part One, I touched on Robert Kaplan's thesis, given during a talk to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, that China is modeling its actions in the South China Sea after the way the US navy's control of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico gave it domination over the Western Hemisphere and boosted the rise of the US to the status of a global superpower. With control of the Western Hemisphere, the US, Kaplan argues, had power to spare to gain dominance over the Eastern Hemisphere:

"[This made the US] the pivot power that determined the outcome of the two World Wars and the Cold War. The Monro Doctrine was not about kicking out the European Powers, it was about not letting them back in, keep the status quo (with the US dominant) and move closer to them."

What China is seeking is not a naval confrontation with the US, which it couldn't win at its present stage of development, but to quietly squeeze most of the US navy out of the arena:

"Naval strength is not [about ships] but about crews. Having all the crews work in co-ordination with a strike group of about 10 ships. China is building for this but they are a generation away."

However, within 10 to 15 years the Chinese will have more submarines at sea than the US, and their diesel subs are quieter than the US stealth nuclear submarines, he points out. Moreover, all their submarines will be concentrated in the Pacific and China seas whilst the US has to spread its sub fleet around the world.

Dominating the South China Sea will give China unimpeded access to the Southern Pacific Ocean. There are already 300 commercial flights a week between China and Taiwan, which of course China claims. Dominance in the South China Sea will further weaken Taiwan's position and facilitate China's goal of an eventual bullet-free reunion with Taiwan.

Still more geography comes into play when you consider the role of the Strait of Malacca, a narrow 500 mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Only a narrow portion of the Strait is navigable so it plays a role very like the Panama Canal. Controlling the Strait will provide China with unimpeded access to the Indian Ocean, where, as Kaplan points out: "all the energy flows across the ocean to the burgeoning flesh pots of East Asia". A nice bit of water to control. The energy center of the world at the present time is the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean sits between the Middle East and East Asia.

"Despite modern air cargo, 90% of the world's goods still move by sea in container ships. Anything going to Japan, South Korea or China has to move through the South China Sea. Plus it has deposits of oil and natural gas, so [all the neighboring countries] want a piece of it."

Kaplan's conclusion is that the main conflict lines in East Asia are not about ideas (communism versus liberal democracy), or economics. They are about who controls what in the blue water oceans. Capitalist growth leads to military acquisitions. China has global interests now that it never had before. So it needs a blue water navy and significant air power. Kaplan's point is not that we are headed for war. It is that the nature of China's rise and the geography of the South China sea basin means that we are headed for a much more crowded and nervous world.

As he puts it: "Globalization depends on sea lanes, so the maritime sphere becomes more important than it has ever been". He argues that the reason why we do not have more open wars between neighboring emerging nations is almost purely down to the dominance of US military power. The US navy keeps the world behaving itself. The days when it could do that easily are coming to an end. He warns:

"Do not assume that China will remain increasingly prosperous and stable. It is trying to transform its economy into one with fewer exports, higher wages and more home consumption. It is not clear that this can be done. An economic collapse in China is not probable, but it is possible [...] Do not take Asian security for granted. We have been conditioned to think of Asia as being all about business [...] but with more and more countries with more and more ships and planes contesting territory [war] can happen."

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Further reading on Asia:

Tags: Asian security , China , Chinese Navy , Japan , Taiwan , US Navy
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