Tuesday, November 29, 2011

1914 Deja Vu in the South China Sea: Is war coming?

I've a lovely little painting in my study of Germany's first emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm 1.

It was painted soon after the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the creation of a united Germany with Wilhelm as its monarch – thanks to the great German statesman, Prince Bismarck.

United Germany’s fast-rising economic and military power was seen by the British Empire, which then ruled a quarter of the globe, as a dire threat.

Bismarck managed to cleverly divide or distract Germany’s foes. But the new young Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed the domineering Bismarck and soon plunged his nation into confrontation with Imperial Britain over naval power, colonies, and trade. Britain determined to crush rival Germany. The fuse of World War I was lit.

We see the first steps of a similar great power clash taking shape today in South Asia.

A usually cautious China has been aggressively asserting maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, a region bordered by Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and China.

Japan, India, South Korea and the United States also assert strategic interests in the hotly disputed sea, which is believed to contain 100 billion barrels of oil and 700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. China has repeatedly clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines over islets and rocks in the South China Sea. Tensions are high.

In 2010, the US strongly backed the maritime resource claims by the smaller Asian states, warning off China and reasserting the US Navy’s right to patrol anywhere.

Last week, Washington raised the stakes in this power game, announcing it will permanently base 2,500 Marines at the remote northern Australian port of Darwin. more