The South China Sea and Pakistan

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Dr Atique Ur Rehman

Russia-Ukraine war might prove to be a major power play immediately after Covid19, providing an opportunity for the US to exploit the Chinese trade markets.

Geopolitics is dynamic and inconsistent. The power play by great powers continues to enhance their influence in military, energy, trade, and information management. The US focus remains on strengthening ties with NATO, pick and choose in middle eastern as well as south Asian and south-east Asian nations. China and Russia continue their quest for consensus and cooperation on global issues to counter the US and also enhance bilateral trade, particularly energy. Thus, the war for global supremacy continues in various regions of the world.
With the weakening of global order in a unipolar world, regional politics and disputes have got prominence. The Russia-Ukraine war might prove to be a major power play, immediately after Covid19, providing an opportunity for the US to exploit the post-conflict global energy crisis and Chinese trade markets.
The security of South Asia, and Southeast Asia, the most significant regions of Eurasia has consistently been threatened due to external influences. US role in the region has been prominent to counter Chinese expanding influence through Belt and Road Initiative and support India for a check on China in regional conflicts, particularly Indo-Pacific region.
South China sea (SCS) is historically a contested area since the 19th century. It is the most frequently used global trade route. An approximately $5 trillion trade passes through SCS annually.
The dispute in SCS is about three issues, territorial sovereignty, maritime and geopolitics. South China sea is rich in oil, gas and fish reserves. It is housing 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 8% of the world’s fishery resources. The sea is at the heart of a rapidly changing Asia Pacific, which accounts for a larger share of global trade and economic activity each year, an estimated 30 per cent of the global maritime trade passes through the South China Sea on its way to Southeast Asian ports. SCS is the gateway to the strait of Malacca and the port of Singapore, one of the world’s most important merchant shipping routes; a stranglehold on the Paracel and the Spratly islands also ensures control over the supply route of Northeast Asia.
There are two major territorial disputes and a minor dispute in SCS. Major disputes are over Paracel and Spratly islands. There are three claimants of Paracel, China, Vietnam and Taiwan. The contested islands occupied by China have been converted into fortified military and communication bases with airfields, roads, buildings, and launching pads for missile systems. Most of the current problems stem from the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, which followed Japan’s defeat in World War II. Within the terms of its surrender, Japan gave up its rights to its islands in the South China Sea, leaving a power vacuum in the region. No country was explicitly granted sovereignty over these waters, and China asserted its advantage by submitting the now infamous “nine-dotted line” claim covering almost the entire South China Sea in 1947. This line became China’s official claim and is known today as the “Nine-Dash Line”.
Spratly has six claimants, some claiming all of the island and some part of it. A minor dispute is over Scarborough Shoal island between China and the Philippines. The second issue in SCS is the claim over maritime resources. This dispute has no specific point of the contest rather claims are based on self-created logic and reasoning about fish in disputed areas. The major contest is geopolitics which revolves around influence in the SCS and is obviously between two giants China and US. Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam are siding with US and Cambodia and Macao are siding with China in this power play but this rivalry is a threat to peace and security in the Asia Pacific.
Territorial disputes in the south China sea are a continuous threat not only to international security but also to regional countries. Any conflict will put an end to furthering economic ties in south-east Asian countries. Territorial disputes in the south china sea have serious implications for global peace and stability particularly for Asia-pacific states including Pakistan. Recently exhibited, the US over-emphasized interest in Taiwan and China’s belligerence posture in the garb of military exercises indicates that in case of any escalation, how things will unfold in the region. Due to its geo-strategic location and military prowess, Pakistan is not a country which could be ignored by any of the world powers, nor Pakistan can ignore the development in its proximity. Recent posturing by the US, China and Taiwan has become problematic for Pakistan to maintain a balanced relationship with stakeholders in SCS, particularly China and US. Pakistan’s economic vulnerability makes it difficult for her to maintain a balanced relationship with both great powers. CPEC which is the flagship program of BRI is contributing immensely to Pakistan’s infrastructure and energy sectors. On the other hand, the US has complete influence over the IMF and World Bank which has just bailed Pakistan out of its default position and FATF. Both great powers have significant leverage over Pakistan’s economy.
Pakistan is desperately trying to maintain a balance in its foreign policy options and avoid block politics. Neither it can abandon America, nor it can show a hand to China. Abandoning the US will bring Pakistan to face multifaceted issues in the evolving new Cold War between the US, China, and Russia. Over the years, Pakistan has established strong relations with the US in counter-terrorism. The recent withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and the post-withdrawal position also demand a close watch in troubled Afghanistan by both US and Pakistan. After the exit from Afghanistan, the US has been relying on India to contain China. But the Indian quest for an autonomous foreign policy and growing trade with China, which is approximately touching $127 billion, provides an opportunity for Pakistan to exploit the vacuum and force the US to bring Pakistan into the fold of their new Asia pacific policy. At the same time, hick-ups in the progress of CPEC are bad indicators of the Pak-China trade relationship.

Maintaining cordial relations with China and the United States is imperative for Pakistan’s national security. However, the Sino-US spiralling systematic rivalry and competition shrink Islamabad’s space for manoeuvring between them to cater for its economic and security needs without upsetting anyone. Pakistan needs to adopt a hedging policy instead of a bandwagon or balance of power. Experts explain that hedging strategy necessitates the avoidance of binaries in international politics, prioritizes its economic gains and stabilizes domestic politics. Pakistan needs to manoeuvre between US and China to maximize its security and economic needs. Pakistan has very less space to make big detours owing to its internal political unrest and bad economic condition.

The writer holds a PhD in international relations and can be reached at atiquesheikh2000@gmail.com.