South China Sea


South China Sea by Dr. Robert Gerwig

Photo by Author

Oil! Fishing rights! Global naval strategies!…
The South China Sea is an area of contention for global, and emerging global, powers China, the United States, India and three of the smaller countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, & the Philippines) that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The contention involves fishing rights, oil, and global power.

The typical Asian diet includes a high percentage of fish (compared to the average Western diet) and as pressure has increased on fisheries in Asia and around the world, countries throughout Asia are in conflict over fishing rights. The South China Sea is no exception. Fishing boats and crews have been seized. Shots have been fired. And military forces (such as naval patrol boats and airplanes) have been called upon by to “protect” the rights of any given state. Clearly, the larger nations, such as China, with a more extensive military, can afford a stronger military presence in the region.

In addition to conflict in the South China Sea over fishing rights, there is conflict over oil. This needs little explanation. China is a large net importer of oil and they want to find sources of oil close to home (preferably within their “national” boundaries). Additionally, they want to protect the oil and trades lanes in and out of China. To this end, the South China Sea is strategic. Control of this area means control of the sea lanes and there are plentiful oil reserves. These oil reserves also happen to be claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Last but not least, India is involved via partnerships with state-owned oil companies in Vietnam. Suffice it say, oil in the South China Sea adds a significant level of complexity over and above the fishing rights issue.

Finally, the South China Sea represents a strategic naval region to China directly and to Taiwan, Japan, India, and the United States indirectly. As China continues to develop and implement its extended naval strategy and associated capabilities, it finds itself in direct conflict the interest of the United States in the Western Pacific. China wants access to the open seas. It wants to protect the sea lanes that bring oil to China from the Middle East and global trade to/from China. It wants to keep other countries, such as India, Vietnam, and the Philippines from developing oil field in the South China Sea. It wants to isolate Taiwan and prevent them from declaring independence. And it wants to develop its nuclear capabilities in the Western Pacific (i.e. by deploying aircraft carriers and submarines capable of firing off ballistic missiles).

I am NOT a political theorist. I am NOT a national defense security advisor. I am a manufacturing executive who heads up a manufacturing operation in the Philippines. Theoretically, I can influence (e.g. through exercising my right to vote) national policy (at least in the United States) and I can discuss key strategic issues with local (i.e. the Philippines) and regional (i.e. ASEAN) leaders in government and commerce. But in the end, the most helpful and practical thing I can do is to be aware of the larger world around me and its potential impact on the operations which I lead—
so I can make contingency (aka business continuity) plans and mitigate the associated risks of rising conflict in the South China Sea.

The facility I manage in the Philippines has suppliers throughout southeast and northern Asia. We send finished goods to various ports throughout Asia. We use power that is generated locally. We enjoy a stable political and commercial environment. We use local and regional shipping lanes on a daily basis. The South China Sea is important to me and the organization I lead. How the global powers and ASEAN countries work through their differences is important to me because of its importance to the organization for which I’m responsible.

My article this week was prompted by reading an article by Leszek Buszynski in The Washington Quarterly (Spring 2012, Vol. 35, No. 2, The South China Sea: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U.S.-China Strategic Rivalry, p. 139).

What are you reading? … How do you keep up with global, regional, and local political issues? … How do you use this knowledge to influence strategic governance at the regional or national levels and tactical operations in your organization?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

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