What the South China Sea Teaches Us About Power

Last week, the HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious British navy warship docked in Ho Chi Minh City, where one of our offices is domiciled.

That’s one day after the Vietnam’s National Day, celebrating the late-Vietnamese leader’s declaration of independence from France.

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The state-of-the-art warship’s visit barely made our local Vietnamese news, and when it did, it was packaged as merely ‘ceremonial’—to celebrate Vietnamese and UK bilateral relations.

Personally, I believe the path it chose—passing near the contested Paracel Islands in the South China Sea—and its docking point was symbolic. Specifically, it sent a message to the elephant in the room:

China… who responded in kind, sending out interceptor helicopters and a frigate to harass the Albion as it sailed past the Paracel islands, which it claims along with most of the South China Sea, as its own.

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An article in the China Daily called Britain “Washington’s sharksucker”, implying the UK navy was subservient to U.S. demands. China Daily is a paper, I might add, that the BBC has called ‘state-run’.

The article then went on to suggest Britain better tread carefully if it wants to secure any kind of trade agreement with China post-Brexit.

I’ve written about the South China Sea quite a lot in the past. It’s an issue that has slipped in and out of the international headlines regularly over the last 5 years.

That may make it seem like it’s a never-ending, ‘stagnant’ kind of global issue with no resolution in sight.

However, the South China Sea dispute is anything but static. Facts on the ground—or should we say water—are constantly changing.

Recall in 2015, when China outright rejected the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the intergovernmental organization located at The Hague.

They declared China’s huge territorial claim over the South China Sea essentially null and void.

Despite the tit for tat movements and accusations between the Chinese and the U.S.-backed cluster of nations in the area—including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan—appearing predictable as a pendulum…

This multi-lateral zone of contention is moving in a definitive direction, and it’s not a good one:

China has recently become a lot more vocal and outright aggressive to military maneuvers of foreign vessels that even come near some of the contested islands it claims and the military installations it has constructed on them.

It now not only takes military and economic intimidation against smaller nation claimants of South China Sea territory, but also seems very willing to confront major powers like the U.S., Australia and UK.

It has also been very active behind the scenes, winning over factions in governments across the region, from The Philippines to Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia, who increasingly feel that their futures are more secure playing according to China’s rules, than trying to oppose them.

Why is this important? All of this points to a clear shift in the balance of power in the region.

Either this will lead to a new normalization of Chinese dominance of the region, or—and this is the more likely outcome—it will be met with a strong response from the U.S., possibly via an escalation of the trade war, or more.

As we’ve written before, the enmity between the U.S. and China runs a lot deeper than the relationship between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, which cannot be said to be too great either.

We'll be watching this closely.

Peter Pham