Ominous Cold War nostalgia in South China Sea
It's hard to imagine it could come to a shooting war in this age of economic interpenetration, but both sides are sure acting like they're itching for one. Weeks after Obama announced what the media have dubbed the Pentagon's "return to Asia" (we call it a New Cold War with China), Russia and China team up for joint naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, northern inlet of the East China Sea. (See map.) Simultaneously, the US and Philippine navies hold their own joint exercises in the South China Sea, a drill dubbed "Balikatan," meaning"shoulder-to-shoulder" in the Tagalog language. Both dills involve multiple warships and thousands of troops. The Sino-Russian drill is being carried out under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional body established after the Soviet collapse to counter-balance the US presence in Asia and the Pacific.
Just last week, China released 21 Vietnamese fishermen detained for more than a month on a disputed island in the South China Sea. Chinese security forces intercepted the fishermen’s two boats in early March near the disputed Paracel Islands, known in China as the Xisha Islands. The Paracels are held by China but claimed by Vietnam. (See map.) (China.org.cn, April 21; MSNBC, April 20)
March also saw a near-skirmish between Chinese and Philippine forces in the South China Sea (which Manila prefers to call the West Philippine Sea) after a Chinese fishing fleet was caught fishing in the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both nations. The Philippine Coast Guard boarded the Chinese vessels, but quickly retreated when the People's Liberation Navy arrived on the scene with three ships.
A third disputed territory in the South China Sea is the Spratly Islands, claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. This is a potential flashpoint between Beijing and Taiwan—which maintains military forces on the archipelago's largest island, Itu Aba. (Sun Star, Bacolod, Philippines, April 21)
After the Scarborough Shoal incident, presumed Philippine hackers attacked several Chinese websites, leaving the slogans "Scarborough Shoal is ours!" and "Spratly Islands is ours!" (GMA News, April 21) But Philippine anti-militarists meanwhile held protests against the Balikatan exercises in Zamboanga City, Mindinao, especially citing ecological damage. The burning of a US flag capped the April 19 protest, despite a heavy police and army presence. (Zamboanga Today, April 20; Inquirer Mindanao, April 19; Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 17)