The recent incidents in the middle of the South China Sea, in which a large American ship was “harassed” by various Chinese boats, have a comical aspect. The “harassment” seems to have been mostly a matter of uncomfortably close approaches, flag waving, and beaming lights. The most violent moment was when the Americans used fire hoses to drench the sailors on a boat that had come too close, inducing them to strip to their underwear.
These antics, however, may be the prelude to more serious conflict. An armed clash between China and the US is, perhaps, more likely to occur in the South China Sea than in the context of a putative Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
A spy ship
Many reports have described the American vessel, USNS Impeccable, as a “survey ship” or “ocean surveillance ship.” This creates the misleading impression that such ships exist for the purpose of oceanographic mapping or scientific research.
In fact, although they are unarmed and have civilian crews, the “survey ships” belong to the US navy and their function is to collect military intelligence. They are really spy ships.
The main job of the survey ship deployed in the South China Sea is to track the Chinese submarines that patrol there, operating from a base at the southern tip of Hainan Island. These are nuclear submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles – that is, they constitute China’s “nuclear deterrent.” The tracking is done by means of underwater sonar arrays attached to the ship by cables. There was some attempt by Chinese sailors to sever the cables and set the arrays adrift.
It is true that USNS Impeccable, lacking armaments more powerful than fire hoses, does not by itself pose a direct threat to the submarines. But the data it collects could be passed on to another vessel equipped with anti-submarine missiles. In other words, the spy ship is a key component of anti-submarine warfare capability. It is therefore no surprise that the Chinese government should want it to leave the area.
Legalities of carve-up
It is in large part with a view to securing a sanctuary for its nuclear submarines that China asserts the right to control most of the South China Sea, an area of some 2 million square kilometres – to turn it into a “Chinese lake.” The legal case cooked up by its diplomats involves claiming the three main archipelagos in the sea as Chinese territory and then demarcating an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) 200 miles (320 km.) wide around them as well as Hainan Island and along the shore of the mainland.
Finally, China seeks to erase the distinction between territorial waters and an EEZ. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits the presence of a spy ship in territorial waters, but not in an EEZ. The US position is that USNS Impeccable did not enter China’s territorial waters – it was 75 miles (120 km.) off the coast of Hainan at the time of the incidents – so its activity is perfectly legal.
Of course, it does not matter to us as socialists which side has the better case in terms of international law. The whole world is the common heritage of mankind, and we do not recognize the right of capitalist powers to carve it up among themselves.
While the military issue is the direct cause of the current clash between China and the US, as it was of a similar clash involving aircraft in 1991, there are also other major issues at stake.
First, rights in the South China Sea are crucial to control over vital shipping lanes. The shortest route between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean passes through the sea. This, for instance, is the route taken by tankers transporting crude oil from the Gulf to East Asia. One rationale for the US presence is to keep the sea routes open: if China were allowed strategic dominance it could close off the Malacca Strait, which connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean.
There are also plenty of resources to fight about in and under the sea, including valuable fishing grounds and still unexploited oil and gas fields. This is the underlying reason why it is so difficult to unravel the complicated tangle of territorial disputes over the sea and its islands among the six coastal states: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. In 1974 and 1988 these disputes led to military clashes – in both cases between China and Vietnam.