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US navigates major geopolitical tensions

Diplomatic response to China’s struggle for control and influence in the South China Sea, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s response to Hamas' attack on the country from Gaza are complex.

| 9 min read

On 23 March, a Chinese vessel used a water cannon to try to prevent a Philippines supply boat providing necessities to the Sierra Madre, an old naval vessel they had driven onto the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. The Philippines government keeps troops on the ageing vessel, claiming it is in their exclusive economic zone.

This boat represents the Philippines’ response to China’s aggressive claims in the region. In 2016, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal largely ruled in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with China over rights in the South China Sea. However, China disregarded the ruling and continues to assert its dominance over most of the sea, relying on its controversial “9-dash line.”

Six countries border the South China Sea: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brunei. Additionally, Taiwan is located in the region. The Spratly Islands, situated to the south of the central sea area, are at the centre of much of the dispute. Various countries vie for claims to individual islands and reefs within this archipelago.

China has been actively converting several reefs in the South China Sea into island bases, constructing facilities to house troops, runways for planes, and quays for ships. For instance, Fiery Cross Island is being developed into a military base with a 10,000-foot runway. An independent study conducted by the US AMTI (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative) and the China Ocean Institute suggests that China has caused damage to approximately 21,000 acres of coral reef as it transforms reefs and shoals into established islands.

Under the law of the sea, coastal nations can assert an exclusive economic zone over 200 miles of sea from their shore, or to a median line with another country’s zone. International maritime law including rights to free passage and open fishing rights apply beyond these zones. China not only seeks military bases on islands to extend its territory, but also has a large fishing fleet to exploit the waters.

Some claim Chinese boats are overfishing, and some are critical of damage the Chinese harvesting of giant clams does to the marine environment. Some of the boats are said by the European Union (EU) to be “militia trawlers” threatening rival country fishing vessels. China wishes to extend its territory through new islands, to buttress her claim to the wider waters around the far-flung islands and to restrict western shipping.

The US, Philippines and Japan

Neither the US nor Japan has any direct claims on the South China Sea. Both countries wish to ensure that third parties can use the international waters of the sea for commerce and leisure journeys unimpeded. Additionally, they support their allies in the region who are in dispute with China over bases and the extent of the Chinese economic zone. The Philippines has leaned more towards the US under President Marcos and has a mutual defence treaty with the US.

Yokosuka, a large US naval base in Japan, is crucial for the exercise of US naval power in the region and serves as the home base for the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier. US naval vessels actively work to keep the shipping lanes across the South China Sea open despite Chinese complaints and interference. Both Japan and Taiwan consider standing up to Chinese maritime claims important, and they look to the US for support. Much of Japan’s seaborne trade relies on crossing the South China Sea.

This week, President Biden is hosting the Japanese Prime Minister. On Thursday, a trilateral meeting is planned with the Philippines and Japan at the White House. The meeting will likely emphasize the need to protect navigation and may lead to more regular patrols by the three navies. Prime Minister Kishida of Japan aims to demonstrate Japan’s growing role and contribution to regional security, while President Marcos seeks additional US assistance in dealing with China-related issues."

Taiwan

It is unlikely that China will invade Taiwan anytime soon. Recent elections in Taiwan have made it clear that many Taiwanese do not wish to be annexed by China. The new government will continue to defend Taiwan against possible attacks and will rely on US weaponry and support.

While the US policy remains one of studied ambiguity regarding how they would respond to a direct Chinese invasion, President Biden has deviated from the policy script in a hawkish direction, emphasizing his desire to see the current degree of independent elected government survive. Former President Trump has frequently expressed his opposition to Chinese expansion.

Meanwhile, China is developing techniques to blockade positions held by representatives of other countries living on islands and reefs in the South China Sea, areas where China asserts its claims. Known as the “cabbage strategy,” China deploys numerous ships to blockade small settlements, making it challenging to receive supplies from the sea.

Currently, China employs water cannons to deter incoming supply and relief vessels. Attempting to blockade Taiwan would be significantly more complex and difficult due to the island’s size. Additionally, given the interest of US-led naval forces, any such development would likely face scrutiny. China is also contemplating the imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone above the sea, which would require interdicting both planes and ships if applied to Taiwan.

Gaza

President Biden’s increasing frustration with Israel’s conduct during the Gaza war has prompted a change or pause in Israeli policy. Israel had frequently expressed its intention to continue the conflict into southern Gaza, specifically around Rafah, where many people are currently congregated. However, the US has cautioned against fighting Hamas in that densely populated area, citing the risk to civilians. Israel has now announced a pause in its advance and partial withdrawal from certain locations.

Despite this, pressure from forces within his own governing coalition has led the Israeli Prime Minister to set a date for commencing military actions around Rafah in the south. The U.S. still deems this too perilous for the large civilian population clustered there, and counterproposals are being made on how to target Hamas military forces without a full-scale assault on Rafah. Intense negotiations between Hamas and Israel are underway, facilitated by US, Qatari, and Egyptian mediation.

Ukraine

President Biden remains committed to providing financial and military aid to Ukraine, although his proposed package implies a reduction in support. A substantial minority of Republican Congress members are against further aid to Ukraine, influenced by candidate Trump. Some US opinions suggest that the war in Eastern Europe should be handled by Europeans themselves. Mr Trump believes that many voters are more concerned about the influx of migrants across the southern border and the lingering inflation in the system than they are about Russia’s invasion.

Given the importance of the US within the Nato alliance and the relative size of the US defence industries, substantial contributions from the US are necessary to meet Ukraine’s immediate needs. Throughout this war, the US and Nato have consistently offered verbal support for Ukraine and condemned Russian actions. However, they have been cautious about direct involvement in the conflict.

They have taken measures to prevent Western weaponry from being used outside Ukrainian battle areas and to ensure that Western personnel are not engaged in combat. Despite this, they have been slow to provide the latest and most powerful weapons. With Russia increasing its efforts and Ukraine facing shortages of shells and air defence capabilities, hopes of an early Ukrainian victory have diminished. The escalating war, including attacks on energy systems by both sides, has broader implications for energy markets.

President Biden has not yet urged Ukraine to settle in the same way he has with Israel. His inability to deliver more timely and substantial support is making life tougher for Ukraine. The EU has assembled an additional package of financial aid but is struggling to meet commitments for shell supplies. Ukraine requires significant funding to support its government and much greater assistance with weapons and ammunition.

China is likely to continue to test out the US and its allies in Asia but does not want to start a major war.

There are always geopolitical risks. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza continue to kill too many and do great local damage. It does not seem they are going to spread into a wider conflict involving the US, Nato, and China directly.

This week will see some interest in a long simmering set of disputes over the South China Sea, reminding the world of China’s expansionist ambitions. Whilst these are unhelpful China has so far been careful not to escalate these into a direct conflict with the US. China is likely to continue to test out the US and its allies in Asia but does not want to start a major war.

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US navigates major geopolitical tensions

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