With tension escalating in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and the protagonists ratcheting up their respective claims, it sure looks like the specter of war is not too far-fetched.
But is it really? China, ironically, the main player here on account of its territorial claims and aggressive build up on islands and reefs claimed in part or in whole by other Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, will not likely oblige.
That’s how analysts see the bigger theater that is the South China Sea.
With news that a big carrier group from the United Kingdom has set sail toward the region, and Western allies like France, Australia, Japan and even India joining the fray in a multinational coalition to emphasize freedom of navigation in the sea lanes affected by China’s nine-dash line claims, many have raised fears that indeed prospects of a shooting war are not far-fetched.
An analyst, however, has doused cold water on that one. Beijing, he says, is not that foolhardy to think that it has a chance against the superior maritime forces of the West. It knows it will be wiped out in no time should it insist on throwing its weight around.
For all its military buildup and modernization, China, an analyst conceded, cannot engage in an outright shooting war. The Mainland’s navy, he said, is comparable only to Japan, which even then has far more aircraft carriers with five to the Chinese’s two.
Superiority still lies in the western powers, with the US alone holding a big advantage in terms of maritime might. China, the analyst said, could only block but not engage. The Chinese know this, that is why they were rushing to make their presence felt in the disputed waters.
After taking naval control over Scarborough Shoal, China has spiked up its efforts to secure other disputed territories in the WPS to the chagrin of Manila, which has called on the US to activate the mutual defense agreement in case of a major confrontation.
Since its withdrawal from the Philippines in 1991, US interest in Philippine affairs and wherewithal to honor its commitments under existing defense treaties have wavered. Still, it is in everyone’s interest to develop strategies to contain the erstwhile sleeping giant.
Despite this, the Philippines remains important to the US because it is located near the Straits of Malacca, is within missile and airstrike shot of one notably belligerent Korean regime, and is a more convenient staging platform for any sort of strategic “deterrence” position America aspires to taking in the next several years to balance military power in the region.
Make no mistake about it, however, another analyst warned. The international coalition is here not to help the Philippines enforce its claims against a superpower. They are merely sending a signal to China that what it is doing is not acceptable to the international community.
The sailing of Britain’s carrier group comes on the heels of several freedom of navigation expeditions by the United States Seventh fleet to ensure that the vital sea lanes on which several billion dollars of trade pass through annually are kept open without China’s interference.
The carrier group is hosting 10 US Navy F-35 aircraft among its airwing component. It’s a joint US-UK operation in this part of the world. It’s a very strong statement against China. It’s the world’s way of telling Beijing that what it is doing is unacceptable. It emphasizes the seriousness of the situation in this part of the world.
Expect claims of western imperialism from trolls in the coming days. That is not surprising. This is not a war won only though might and superior force. It is also a battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the region, particularly the billons of Chinese in the mainland.
China may not be in a position to challenge the military might of the western world, but it can draw satisfaction from the fact that it was able to challenge how resolute the international community is in keeping global order.
The lessons of history have not been lost on the Chinese leadership. They may not be able to throw their weight around militarily, but they can do what they can in terms of being a dominant nation in trade and the global economy.
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