The war over the seas between the United States and China

AUKUS alliance increases tension with Beijing in Pacific waters

4 min
Satellite images of Fiery Cross, South China Sea.

BarcelonaOn Wednesday night, when the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia announced the creation of a new alliance to defend their interests in the seas separating the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, the three heads of government were at pains not to mention one name: China. The American, Joe Biden, even declined to answer questions about the role that the Asian giant had played in making this decision. But despite the silence - evidently agreed on between the three executives - no one is unaware that the real objective of this alliance is to curb the expansionist ambition of Xi Jinping's government and, specifically, to confront its dominance in this maritime area that has been a source of dispute for years. Hence the cries of rejection and discomfort that were quickly heard from Beijing, accusing Washington of playing "Cold War" strategic games.

The White House has long been concerned about what is happening in this maritime area, located just south of China and Vietnam and around the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. In fact, experts consider this to be the most likely scenario of a hypothetical - and feared - war between the Chinese and Americans. To understand this, you have to go back a few decades. Historically, Beijing has claimed between 80% and 90% of these waters, citing historical reasons and a map published in 1947 that considered most of this sea to be its property. Despite this, surrounding countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei or Taiwan also claim these waters, a significant part of which are considered international. In 2016 the Hague rejected the vast majority of Chinese claims, but Beijing has never accepted this and, in fact, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, this yearning to claim them as its own has intensified.

Aggressive strategies

The Chinese president's strategy has been increasingly uncomplicated. China has been increasing its military presence in the area for years, with naval bases, military airports and warships and warplanes patrolling these remote waters day in and day out. It has also built artificial islands of its own or administrative districts in areas that the Philippine or Vietnamese governments consider theirs. Although some of these actions are against international law, it seems to be no problem for Xi Jinping, who wants to make it clear that he is willing to push the envelope to the limit to assert his sovereignty in the area. He has also made it clear that he does not want foreign visitors poking their noses in there: lately there have been several cases in which the Chinese military have chased away boats or planes from other countries that were approaching.

Territorial waters claimed.

Washington's response has also been forceful. Currently, there is no doubt that curbing China's expansionist ambition is the first goal of Biden's foreign policy, but already during Barack Obama's presidency (with Biden himself as vice president) it was an issue that generated concern in the U.S. "It's pretty clear that this is not a conflict over an islet," an adviser to President Obama told The New York Times in 2014. "We think they're doing it to drive us out of the Pacific", he added, referring to China's growing military deployment in these seas.

Since then, the White House has also sent further and further military presence: from planes, submarines or ships to having naval bases there. Last year, Mike Pompeo, then US Secretary of State under Donald Trump, said it clearly: "Neither we nor the world will allow Beijing to use the South China Sea as if it were its maritime empire". On the other hand, the Chinese government considers the opposite: that it is the United States that wants to use these seas as if it were its empire. As Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian summed it up this week: "The United States frequently sends warships and warplanes to China's seas. These maneuvers are a show of strength and therefore a threat, and this will not help to ensure peace and stability in the region".

A few key islets

And as is always the case in geopolitics, everything is explained by the interests behind it. The economic reasons for the conflict are clear. On the one hand, there are abundant gas and oil deposits in the disputed waters. On the other hand, almost half of the world's trade is transported through these seas (about five trillion dollars a year). For example, 75% of the oil that reaches the Asia-Pacific from the Persian Gulf travels through this route. In addition, 8% of the world's fish is extracted from this area in a world where there is less and less fish and, on the contrary, more and more demand for it.

And then there are the strategic reasons. Washington has woven a network of alliances around these seas, starting with Japan, Taiwan or South Korea and ending with Australia or even India. This bothers Xi Jinping, who feels besieged by what he considers a US policy of containment that threatens his sovereignty and could suffocate his outlet to the sea. Paradoxically, the United States' arguments are the same: that an increasingly strong China, with more and more weight on the international chessboard, will end up becoming the master and mistress of this area between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. "It is probably the place in the world where China's foreign policy is being most aggressive", points out Manel Ollé, professor of Chinese studies at the UPF.

Although both Joe Biden and Xi Jinping have reiterated in recent months that neither side has an interest in confrontation - in fact, last week the two leaders held a call in which this was the main conclusion -, the announcement of the alliance of Washington, London and Canberra reignites tempers. One of the main points of this agreement is that it will allow Australia to develop nuclear-powered submarines, which will be used to patrol the area and keep a closer eye on Beijing's movements. All this, in an idyllic setting: among often crystal-clear and remote waters, and full of rocky islets that, not so long ago, only mattered to a few local fishermen.