Thursday, June 04, 2015

Fun with China: South China Sea Options "Accept or Contain?" and Playing the Environmental Harm Card

China and its South China Sea adventures are gathering a lot of interest reflected in big media, blogs and a large variety of articles.

At the risk of this blog becoming "all China all the time" here's an opinion piece by Michael Swaine from Foreign Affairs that suggests "accepting" a new reality The Real Challenge in the Pacific: A Response to “How to 
Deter China”
An understanding that a gradual, peaceful transition to a more equal regional balance of power was under way could make Beijing more likely to persuade Pyongyang to abandon or strongly limit its nuclear weapons program and begin the sort of reforms that would eventually yield a unified peninsula. Both U.S. and Chinese leaders might ultimately convince Taipei of the benefits of new and more stable security arrangements (none of which would require the U.S. abandonment of Taiwan). And as for Japan, a calibrated strengthening of its capabilities, in the context of the creation of 
a buffer-like arrangement and stable balance of power with regard to the first island chain, would almost certainly prove acceptable to Beijing and eventually necessary for Tokyo.

Such realignments will not occur automatically. They will require courageous and farsighted leadership in all the relevant capitals, some significant risk taking, and highly effective diplomacy. In fact, given the daunting obstacles in the way, one might legitimately ask why it is worth even raising the prospect of these changes. The answer is that the alternative—trying to sustain U.S. predominance in the western Pacific and muddle through continual and likely intensifying crises—is even worse, risking the sort of large-scale military conflict that power transitions throughout history have so often generated.

Ultimately, the choice facing decision-makers in the United States, China, and other Asian powers is whether to deal forthrightly and sensibly with the changing regional power distribution or avoid the hard decisions that China’s rise poses until the situation grows ever more polarized and dangerous. Indeed, delay will only make the process of change more difficult. There are no other workable alternatives.
The Swaine response was to Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr.'s How to Deter China: The Case for Archipelagic Defense:
In the U.S. military, at least, the “pivot” to Asia has begun. By 2020, the navy and the air force plan to base 60 percent of their forces in the Asia-Pacific region. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is investing a growing share of its shrinking resources in new long-range bombers and nuclear-powered submarines designed to operate in high-threat environments.

These changes are clearly meant to check an increasingly assertive China. And with good reason: Beijing’s expanding territorial claims threaten virtually every country along what is commonly known as “the first island chain,” encompassing parts of Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan—all of which Washington is obligated to protect. But to reliably deter Chinese aggression, the Pentagon will have to go even further. Emerging Chinese capabilities are intended to blunt Washington’s ability to provide military support to its allies and partners. Although deterrence through the prospect of punishment, in the form of air strikes and naval blockades, has a role to play in discouraging Chinese adventurism, Washington’s goal, and that of its allies and partners, should be to achieve deterrence through denial—to convince Beijing that it simply cannot achieve its objectives with force.
Read them both. It's always fun to watch a debate, regardless of how slow-moving.

But wait, there's more:

An environmental campaign to stop China's sand islands? There was this NYTimes article by Floyd Whaley China’s Island-Building Is Ruining Coral Reefs, Philippines Says:
China’s island-building activities have destroyed about 300 acres of coral reefs and are causing “irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance” of the South China Sea, a spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said on Monday.

“China has pursued these activities unilaterally, disregarding people in the surrounding states who have depended on the sea for their livelihood for generations,” the spokesman, Charles Jose, said during a news briefing in Manila.
Followed by Robert Williams's The National Interest item "A Secret Weapon to Stop China's Island Building: The Environment?":
Although the tribunal has yet to decide whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case, the Philippines’ strategy of using international law to press its arguments—rather than through negotiations with China—may offer a blueprint for pushing back against China’s recent land reclamation activities. Here is where the environmental consequences of China’s island buildup are poised to play a central role.

Like all countries that have ratified UNCLOS, China has general legal obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment. UNCLOS specifically requires signatory nations to refrain from causing transboundary environmental harms and to take measures “necessary to protect and preserve rare or fragile ecosystems as well as the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species and other forms of marine life.”
Hmm. Given China's already well-known disregard for the environment in pursuit of its economic goals, one is forced to assume that the Philippines is playing the environmental card to rally all sorts of folks to the cause of stopping China.

Will "it's for the children" come next?

In any event, The National Interest pushed it out again in Anthony Bergin's Is China Destroying the South China Sea? (which headline should have added "Environment" in my view, since seas are tough things to destroy but not to harm):
It’s surprising we haven’t seen environmental groups, mounting the kind of protests in the South China Sea that we saw a few years ago against Arctic oil exploration.
Well, perhaps not too surprising, since such groups seem to have a mostly anti-Western bias. The Age in Australia has allowed the baton to be picked up by David Rosenberg in South China Sea: Why not take up China on its words?:
Beijing has cast a peaceful light on its construction of airfields, ports and radar antennae on 800 hectares of new man-made islands in the South China Sea, claiming they are intended for humanitarian concerns like maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, and navigational security, and to aid environmental protection.
Other countries are also building or expanding their facilities in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam maintains the most features in the Spratly Islands: six islands, 16 reefs, and six banks. Taiwan controls the largest land feature in the Spratly Islands, Itu Aba, and is expanding its port there to accommodate frigates and coast guard cutters. It is also making improvements to its 1200-metre runway.

But the total size of all these construction activities in the Spratly Islands activities is quite small, under 10 square kilometres.

By contrast, the Philippines has 35,000 square kilometres or 3.5 million hectares of coral reefs within its undisputed territorial waters. About 70 per cent of them are degraded due to coral mining, dynamite, cyanide and other destructive fishing practices, as well as sedimentation and pollution from land based sources. This is vastly larger than the buried 120 hectares of reef attributed to Chinese building projects in the Spratly Islands. In the short term, the environmental impact of all these building projects in the Spratlys is highly disruptive to local ecosystems due to sand dredging, coral mining, and cement pouring.

The long-term impact is not yet clear. However, the costs could be catastrophic. Coral reefs are the foundation of the maritime food chain. They provide the habitat and spawning grounds for numerous fish species, including many of the world's most valuable and productive stocks of tuna and shrimp.
That's the trouble with raising environmental claims - fingers get pointed at you. Of course, the "clean hands doctrine, may apply in courts of equity, but usually seems inapplicable in international affairs.

May we live in interesting times.

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