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Global Turning Points: A New Cold War In The South Pacific

Steve Helmeci |
September 12, 2014 | 4:05 p.m. PDT



We don't often hear the phrase “Cold War” used by CNN to describe an international conflict. It usually is reserved for only the most tension-filled standoffs that define an entire generation of geopolitical maneuvers, and that can create ripple effects with catastrophic consequences, for both specific states and the entire international system. 

Given the connotation associated with the phrase, it is plausibly cause for grave concern that an ongoing standoff has been dubbed as such by a major news source. But it is not generating the concern that it should.

The conflict in question surrounds a collection of tiny, mostly uninhabitable islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and a few other southeast Asian nations. It’s such a minor issue at face value, and it has been going on for decades, so why is it termed a “Cold War” now?

Consider the core drivers of the situation: oil and geopolitical power. Vietnam needs the oil. China wants the power.

While discovery missions have been inconclusive about the existence of oil in the South China Sea, Vietnam is in an economic position where it needs to take risks to find oil. In January, it was found that Vietnam’s oil exports dropped 24 percent from 2013, and it is predicted that their largest oil field, Bach Ho, will run dry before the end of the decade. As such, the government has made it a priority to increase production, and they see a clear opportunity in the South China Sea. 

The Vietnamese have vastly expanded their naval capabilities by purchasing modern warships and advanced Kilo submarines from Russia as recently as this Sunday. It is noted in a Reuters article that these submarines are more advanced than those in the Chinese navy, so they could be used as possible deterrents to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

In fact, part of the reason that Vietnam is strengthening their navy in the first place is that China has been taking a much more forceful approach in the South China Sea in recent years, as noted in a Brookings Institute report.

The report’s primary concern, however, is not Chinese aggression, nor even the possibility of China controlling a massive expanse of oil fields, but rather the geopolitical influence that China could hold if they were to control the South China Sea autonomously. Such influence has the potential to alter the entire system of East Asian politics, turning it from a multipolar system, partially controlled by a number of countries, to one of Sino-domination in which China is the undisputed hegemon of the region and significantly more influential in global politics as a whole.

According to the report, concern surrounding Chinese action in the area has been building since 2011, when a Chinese marine surveillance ship severed a cable of a Petrovietnam vessel. Concern peaked in May of this year, when the Chinese oil company CNOOC deployed a platform, Haiyang Shiyou 981, into the disputed waters. When, responding to what they felt was an encroachment, the Vietnamese deployed military ships to warn off the Chinese ships present in the area, the Chinese ships rammed and shot water cannons at Vietnamese ships, both military and commercial. Although that particular standoff did end in July with the removal of the platform, tensions remain high.

Intriguingly, past Chinese investigations into oil in the area have proven unsuccessful, to the tune of billions of dollars lost, according to a piece in International Policy Digest. It seems odd, then, that the government went to such lengths to protect their rights to something so unprofitable. So why the effort?

China’s interest lies not in oil, but in the power that would accompany controlling the South China Sea. One third of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea according to the International Policy Digest report, so China would control the flow of a significant portion of the global economy. Additionally, control of the Sea would allow China to build a “Maritime Silk Road,” a term coined to describe a chain of ports the Chinese want to build across a number of countries including Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This would provide safe havens for Chinese naval vessels even into the Indian Ocean.

These power plays on the part of China have caused grave concern for other international powers, with both India and Russia providing aid to Vietnam. The Vietnamese have reached out to Washington for help as well, but the United States has been wary to act as a result of its close economic ties to Beijing. 

It should be a major concern for Americans that China is challenging to become the hegemon of East Asia, and is even contemplating making strides into the Indian subcontinent. In the past, America has never tolerated any one nation attempting to be the preeminent power in either Asia or Europe, as evidenced by America’s involvement in stopping the progress of Japanese and German power in the 1930s-1940s. It would therefore make sense if America were to involve itself heavily in this matter, since China is maneuvering in a way that suggests it wants to attain that level of power over other nations in Asia.

Complicating matters, however, is America’s obvious and massive economic ties with China. Because of the level of interconnectedness between the economies of the two nations, America has few cards to play against the Chinese other than the occasional admonishment of Chinese actions—without backing up such admonishment with action.

In this columnist’s opinion, the United States must actively pursue whatever means necessary to maintain its power in the region. The United States has allies throughout South and East Asia, and must prove to them that they will receive help if the Chinese attempt to bully them. Additionally, the Americans cannot leave the task of protecting Vietnam to the Russians and Indians, since it makes the country look even weaker in an era when its strength abroad is being questioned consistently. 

Moreover, Vietnam currently does $50 billion worth of trade with China. According to an AP piece, however, the government in Hanoi is considering shifting the bulk of their trade to the United States as a result of the standoff with China. While they are split as of now, if the United States were to come to their aid, it would perhaps sway opinion in Hanoi more towards friendly relations with America. Although $50 billion is very little compared to the amount of trade done between the United States and China, an alliance with Vietnam may prove very useful in any future southeast Asian disputes.

Obviously the issue is far more complicated than the United States simply injecting itself into a regional conflict, but the state of affairs is dire enough to warrant more discourse, if not drastic and immediate action. So I implore you to comment and, if the issue interests you enough, do your own research.


"Global Turning Points" is a new NT column on the critical international issues you might have overlooked. Check back Thursdays or read more here. Contact Columnist Steve Helmeci here.



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