China Moves Swiftly on New "City" Encompassing South China Sea, Gulf Crisis Simmers

While the Gulf crisis simmers with the defection of the centrist Kadima party from the short-lived Israeli unity government and Israeli leaders saying last week's murder of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria is just the latest example of global Iranian terrorism, events accelerated in the South China Sea crisis.

The People's Republic of China, which claims almost the entire sea as it territorial waters, is accelerating its attempt to create a fait accompli. Last month it declared hundreds of islands all around the sea to be a city called Sansha.

Over the past few days, the PRC announced winners of an election to the brand-new Sansha People's Municipal Congress -- its 45 members represent 1100 people spread across hundreds of islands -- and announced that a military garrison will be dispatched to the islands to protect the new government.

Here is a Chinese ship carrying fresh water, food, and other basic supplies to its new and scarcely populated city of Sansha at the beginning of this week.

Of course, by claiming the tiny islands, which have little if any indigenous population, as part of China, the PRC also claims the nearly 800,000 square miles of the strategic South China Sea -- through which much of the world's shipping passes and which holds large oil, natural gas, and mineral reserves and vast quantities of sealife -- that it uneasily shares with several other nations.

Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei have some claims on parts of the South China Sea, which runs practically from Taiwan and Hong Kong down to Singapore and Indonesia, which stake no particular claims but rely on unfettered access, as do most major nations including India, which seeks energy projects there. But it is Vietnam and the Philippines which are most immediately outraged by China's increasingly aggressive moves.

Each claims islands close to it, which the PRC insists belong to it. And each has engaged in tense naval and military stand-offs with China.

Vietnam, of course, fought a short-lived land war with the PRC in the wake of Hanoi's defeat of the US in the Vietnam War. And Vietnam and China have engaged in some fierce fighting in the South China Sea, with nearly a hundred Vietnamese killed.

The Philippines, which fought valiantly against Imperial Japan in World War II before being conquered and during the occupation, have less of a martial tradition than the Vietnamese but aren't backing down, either. Indeed, in his state of the nation address Monday in Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III -- whose reformer father was assassinated by backers of longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos just after returning from exile in 1983 -- refused to budge in opposition to PRC claims to islands off the Philippine coast and announced plans to upgrade the Philippine military, which is a small fraction the size of China's, including a navy with a collection of Coast Guard cutter type vessels and no submarines, and a tiny air force of sub-sonic aircraft easily splashable by the People's Liberation Army Air Force (the world's third largest, after those of the US and Russia).

The US is pushing multilateral negotiation to settle the welter of conflicting and frequently obscure claims that China and its neighbors have in the South China Sea. The PRC, which is much larger than any of its neighbors, prefers to deal with each one at a time, a process in which the correlation of forces will always advantage the PRC, which has accelerated its military spending over the past decade.

As I discussed here on the Huffington Post in "Crises Chaotic and Bubbling: The Gulf and the South China Sea," China's longtime ally Cambodia, which held the host chair, effectively blocked the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) from issuing a summit communique for the first time in 45 years because it would have contained references to the conflicting claims in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea and the Gulf are two ends of the big geopolitical pivot which the US is undertaking -- going from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with the very broadly define Asia Pacific region -- but not the only two.

The geopolitical pivot is a great big ongoing story that will help define the future of America and the future of the world. And it's really not being done properly, since it's largely ignored, or seen only in a momentary and compartmentalized view.

Incidentally, you can check a number of my related articles here in The Pivot Archive.

The Philippines is blasting China for its newest moves in the South China Sea.

The increasing disarray in the South China Sea is of course quite advantageous to the US as it makes its big geopolitical pivot. To the extent that China's neighbors are unable to contend with the PRC's economic and military might, they need a powerful friend. And early signs are that the US is well positioned to fill that role.

With by far the world's most powerful Navy, the US is easily capable of playing a blocking role to China's hegemonic ambitions. And with even Vietnam far friendlier to the US than in the past -- Defense Secretary and veteran California political figure Leon Panetta was in late spring the first US defense secretary to visit Vietnam, where US ships are already making port calls, since the US lost the Vietnam War -- America's renewed "Open Door" policy is off to a good start.

But there is a major imperial overhang in America's history in Asia that can always get in the way. And the proof of intentions is always in the pudding of practice.

There is still much to learn about US commercial priorities in the region. Pious pronouncements from US officials of their desire for multilateral relations and negotiations could easily be undone by a crass corporate agenda.

While all this plays out, the crisis in the Persian Gulf, which most nations on it call the Arabian Gulf, remains at a low boil.

There was little coverage in the US media of last week's terrible incident in which a US Navy security team aboard a non-combatant refueling ship off Dubai, reportedly fearing an approaching fishing boat as a USS Cole-style attack, fired on the craft with a .50 caliber machine gun, killing one Indian fisherman and wounding three others. Which is odd, since Dubai police officials cast doubt on US claims around the incident.

The tension around Iran's nuclear program continues, with the theocratic Iranian regime under increasing sanctions pressure and still not cooperating with the UN's nuclear watchdog agency. Not that advocates of war with Iran have ever presented a coherent perspective on how that would work and make sense.

The right-wing Israeli government bangs the anti-Iran drum even louder following last week's murder of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, saying this is only the latest such attack in a global terrorist campaign.

If so, it may be in retaliation for the assassinations of nuclear scientists and officials deeply involved in the disputed Iranian nuclear program, part of an apparent intelligence war underway between Israel and Iran.

Chinese officials defended the capture of two dozen Vietnamese fishermen by PRC forces in the South China Sea in the spring.

I suspect that it is because the US is mired in the latest Gulf crisis that China is ratcheting things up in the South China Sea.

I very seriously doubt that the PRC can handle the US Navy in the South China Sea, in blocking mode or any other. Much of the South China Sea is quite deep, and it would be difficult for the People's Liberation Army Navy to salvage many of their new assets from it, were it to come to that. (I've been to both the South China Sea and the Gulf, and that factor couldn't be more different. You can swim to the deepest part of the Gulf.)

But bandwidth, or lack of same on the part of the US, is China's ally in this situation. The Gulf still takes priority, because of Iran's repeated threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, the world's principal choke point for oil supply, if sanctions are not eased, and because Israel is in play and this is an American election year, with Mitt Romney and the warhawk right in the US and Israel constantly attacking Barack Obama as supposedly being weak on Israel.

A distracted America gives China a much freer hand as it seeks to establish dominance throughout the South China Sea.

At least in theory.

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