Sea disputes all about economic dominance

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THE MANILA TIMES FORUM: The disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) between China, the Philippines and four other claimant-states are not about oil and minerals but about fishing resources, a senior analyst of US-based think tank Stratfor said during The Manila Times business forum on Wednesday.

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Rodger Baker, Stratfor senior analyst and vice president for Asia Pacific Affairs, said the disputes in the region boil down to economic rather than political dominance.

He added that it is more important for China to secure the West Philippine Sea as a vital trade route and fishing source.

“The need for oil and gas has been there for a long time. [But] what is there [West Philippine Sea] is unclear,” Baker said, adding that foreign investors are wary of putting money into exploring the resource-rich region because of the “political risk.”

“Is it worthwhile to come into disputed territory? The likely element of confrontation [among claimant-countries]is fishing,” he said.

About 10 percent of the global resources for fishing are in the West Philippine Sea, while 22 percent of Asian’s protein consumption comes from seafood, the analyst pointed out.

China needs to protect its fishing interests in the region and make sure that fish will be available for its domestic consumption and for export.

For years, the world has never looked at China as “imperialist” or “colonizers.” Baker said China has kept to itself, mainly focused on providing for its one billion people and sustaining itself through domestic markets.

“But at a certain point in its growth, it [China] can no longer sustain itself,” Baker said.

The ancient Silk Road that goes through north of China to Europe suited the Chinese for many years in terms of trading.

However, because it is now the second largest economy in the world, next only to the United States, China started to look at the potentials of Southeast and South Asia.

Baker said there are two conditions China must ensure to be true before it can build the new Maritime Silk Road (MSR) that will go through the West Philippine Sea, the Indian Ocean and the canals of Venice to meet the ancient land-based silk route. One, that the sea route will always be open for trade (that no power will close it). Two, that Beijing must therefore secure the sea routes for its international trade.

While China is not a naval power, Baker said it needed to be if one it wants to take control of the maritime trade routes.

In March this year, China announced an increase in its military budget for 2014 to almost $132 billion, a 12.2 percent rise over last year’s allocation when it surged by 10.7 percent compared to 2012.

Beijing’s military spending is the second largest in the world, behind only the US, as it attempts to be the dominant military power in the Asia Pacific.

Reports have said much of its military budget is being poured into the South Fleet, which is fast becoming China’s most important naval resource because of the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

China’s naval resources are categorized into three: the traditional North Fleet, the Taiwan-focused East Sea Fleet, and the South Fleet.

Baker said there has been a huge shift in China’s naval resources. He explained that from Beijing’s perspective, the US pivot to Asia is aimed at containing its rise.

But the US, Baker said, would not jeopardize its relations with China because of the “economic ties” and “economic integration” between the two powers.

It does not mean, though, that the US wants to see China growing to the point of threatening it, he added.

Although China has strong economic ties with most of the countries in Southeast Asia, it never played an active role in regional security matters because it was too focused on its domestic issues, the analyst said.

Instead, countries like the US, France and the United Kingdom, among others, have been dominating regional security.

That changed when China shifted its focus to building a Maritime Silk Road to ensure the availability of fishing resources in Southeast Asia, and in a bid to be a legitimate global superpower, which is then perceived to be out to topple the US.

“It wants Southeast Asia to recognize the dominance of China . . . for [countries]to base their strategic decisions on the acceptance of China’s predominant [power],” Baker said.

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