Crises Chaotic and Bubbling: The Gulf and the South China Sea

Two crises, a half a world away from each other on very strategic, very different bodies of water. One I believe, the one in the South China Sea -- a major key to America's geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia Pacific -- is going to U.S. plan. Or at least it was until China upped the ante. The other, in the Persian Gulf, which most countries in the region call the Arabian Gulf, is close to spiraling out of control.

I've been to these places and know them, but I'm not there now so I'm sure I'm missing some of the telling detail, the enlivening color, that can make a big difference in analysis.

Yet several themes seem to be emerging: The perpetual powder keg that is the Gulf is increasingly unstable. The failure of the People's Republic of China's Southeast Asian neighbors to achieve consensus on China's increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea primes the pump for greater U.S. involvement. But China is upping the ante there with even more aggressive moves. The "Open Door" which the U.S. has promoted in East Asia for more than 110 years swings in more than one direction. And, while the prospect of confrontation between the U.S. and China is ratcheting up, the likelihood of war, between the two at least, is not.

Taken together, these developments of just the past few days point up once again why the big geopolitical pivot is arguably the biggest (though wildly under-covered) story in the world.

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

India, with which the US seeks a close alliance, is calling for an investigation after the US Navy opened fire Monday on a fishing boat in the Gulf. One Indian man was killed and three others wounded in the incident off the coast of the UAE. US Navy officials say the boat ignored warnings, but that is being disputed.

* Perpetual Powder Keg

That would be the Gulf. With negotiations over its nuclear program stalling and sanctions against its nuclear program hitting harder, Iran again threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, the most important choke point for oil shipments in the world. And there is little reason to believe that Israel does not still view military strikes against Iran to be very much a live option, especially with Iran hanging tough and diplomacy stalling.

The U.S. Navy has moved many Sea Fox underwater drones to the Gulf to find and destroy mines, part of a build-up of naval, air, and ground forces in the region.

With tensions so high, it's not really a surprise that a deadly incident took place there Monday that looked bad then and worse now.

The USNS Rappahannock, a non-combatant Navy refueling ship, was approached at high speed by a boat off the coast of Dubai. The Navy says its crew gave warning and then the ship's security team, fearing a USS Cole-like attack, lit up the boat with .50 caliber machine gun fire, leaving one local dead and three wounded.

Now it appears that the locals were not hostiles. And that, as is often the case with workers in the Gulf, the locals were fishermen from another country, in this case, India.

Which of course the U.S. is courting heavily as part of its geopolitical pivot.

* Failure As Incomplete Success

Some 5000 miles away, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week achieved something of a success in failing to convince all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at their summit in Cambodia to support a call for multilateral negotiations over the South China Sea.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, through which one-third of the world's shipping passes, to the dismay of its neighbors. (Including Vietnam, which has fought one war with China and engaged in several other deadly encounters.) There are also vast oil, natural gas, and mineral deposits beneath the South China Sea, though how vast is a matter of some dispute. And fish, a staple of regional diets, is ample in the South China Sea.

Longtime PRC ally Cambodia, chairing the summit, wouldn't go along, blocking the issuance of a closing communique for the first time in 45 years.

Even the embarrassment of a Chinese Navy frigate running aground on a shoal in the Spratlys, 60 miles off the coast of the Philippines but claimed as part of the PRC, didn't suffice. The PRC refloated the warship on Sunday, and it is making the long voyage back to China.

China doesn't want multilateral negotiations to settle the welter of conflicting claims in the region. It wants bilateral negotiations, not surprising since it is so much bigger and more powerful than any of its neighbors.

I think the failure of the summit actually served Clinton's purpose and that of the Obama administration. If the existing regional system doesn't work to further the concerns of China's many neighbors on the South China Sea who dispute the PRC's breathtaking sovereignty claims, the "want" factor for US involvement increases.

And Clinton showed a propensity for some tough talk with China.

Which was treated as something new in the fragmentary media reports about it, but really is not. After all, President Bill Clinton sent not one but two aircraft carrier strike groups when China conducted live-fire war games off Taiwan when the breakaway country was holding elections in 1996.

The South China Sea crisis is bubbling up.

* A Fateful Fait Accompli

But China is upping the ante, perhaps trying to force the hand of the U.S., knowing that it is still pinned down at the other end of the pivot, especially with the crisis in the Gulf ramping up.

The PRC has just made two big moves in the South China Sea.

For one, it dispatched a fishing fleet to the Spratly Islands accompanied by a Chinese paramilitary vessel and a crew from Chinese state television news.

For another, it created a "city" government for hundreds of islands across the South China Sea, many of which are closer to other countries.

Sansha city is to choose a legislative body, which will undoubtedly require security.

All of which is to create a fait accompli, diplo-speak for the done deal of an accomplished fact.

China's task is complicated by a big dispute over another area, a group of islands in the East China Sea, which led to the brief recall of Japan's ambassador to the PRC.

* An Open Door Swings Back and Forth

The core of U.S. policy in Asia for the past century is much the same as the core of U.S. policy in Europe. To avert the rise of a dominating power in either region.

With the U.S. getting into the imperialism business after the Spanish-American War, one of the most intriguing figures in American history set forth the U.S. policy on China back in 1899. John Hay began in public life as one of two young private secretaries who came to Washington with President Abraham Lincoln and, after a varied career as a writer and diplomat, died in office as President Teddy Roosevelt's secretary of state.

The dispatch of small drone submarines to deal with a threatened Iranian blockage of the Strait of Hormuz, crucial to global oil supply, is part of a U.S. naval build-up in the Gulf.

The U.S. was behind European powers in the race to carve up China, so Hay, then serving under President William McKinley, put forth the "Open Door" policy, under which China's partition was to be avoided and all countries would have access to trade.

America's inability to dominate was thus turned into a virtue.

Today, with China making its massive rise to power and moving toward hegemony in East Asia, the U.S. again seeks to turn its inability to dominate into a strength, helping China's neighbors to help itself.

* Eagle vs. Dragon?

Will all this lead to war between the U.S. and China? It's hardly impossible, but I doubt it. The two countries have a symbiotic economic relationship. The PRC relies on US markets for export; the U.S. relies on PRC finance.

What is more likely is that the U.S. comes in as the "equalizer" for China's neighbors, most of whom would be otherwise overawed by China's might. Not that the U.S. would do this out of altruism, the usual pious rhetoric notwithstanding.

There are major commercial interests at stake. We have a lot to learn about that, including just how wise those may be. And there are geostrategic interests as well.

If China dominates East Asia, which includes some of the most dynamic economies in the world, its power on the global stage is seriously multiplied. Even by itself, the rise of China is likely to have the displacing effect of a new mountain bursting through the earth and reaching skyward. If it can dominate East Asia, that displacement effect could be much greater.

This thinking is not new. It's why, in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt opposed Japan's domination of Asia and Germany's domination of Europe, pursuing measures to contain both countries even as he battled the Great Depression.

That those efforts ended in war doesn't mean that these will. The PRC is hardly Nazi Germany. And China and America do have a symbiotic relationship, and the economy is far more globally integrated now.

But America's plans on the other end of the big pivot are still emerging, and China may be accelerating things faster than anticipated. Which makes it all very interesting.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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