ASIA-PACIFIC ARMS RACE TAKES OMINOUS TURN
By Alex Pollock
Rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region account for what is being called a game-changer in the way two countries [Australia and Japan] think about protecting themselves from China’s rapid military expansion. China’s rapid build-up of bases, naval forces, and long-range air force in the South China Sea and beyond has unnerved its neighbours, who now seek closer defence ties. (Al Jazeera)
Importance of the South China Sea
The South China Sea is a marginal sea in the Pacific Ocean, with its strategic importance lying in its rich, mostly undisturbed, natural resources. It is suspected to hold significant oil and gas reserves as well as lucrative fishing sites. Over 33% of the world’s trade runs through the sea, carrying over $3 trillion in goods each year. It is situated between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Borneo. Both its land and sea resources have been disputed for decades, with China claiming and exercising sovereignty over 90% of it.
Current state of the South China Sea
Over the last several years, China has increased its presence in the South China Sea by building artificial islands and expanding existing islands, as well as increasing its military presence in the disputed sea. The Chinese military has built naval facilities, air strips, and naval docks on several islands both near to and far from Chinese shores. China’s claimed territory includes both land and sea assets, including the resource-rich Paracel and Spratlys island chains, which are also claimed by several other Asian-Pacific countries.
This Chinese expansion has led to the increased military presence of several countries in the South China Sea, including the United States, Australia, and Japan. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed a plan to significantly increase the country’s military power over the next decade, dedicating $270 billion to defence spending. Australia will purchase more potent strike weapons from the United States Navy, increase cyber capabilities, and invest in an underwater surveillance system to “counter the rise of China.” In a speech at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Mr Morrison called the Indo-Pacific region the epicentre of competition, claiming a heightened risk of military conflict.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also announced an increase in military spending, as Japan is working to boost its offensive military capabilities by modifying its helicopters and fighter jets, as well as investing in more advanced satellite coverage and cyber-warfare capabilities. Japan also announced its intention to purchase military equipment from the United States, as the US continues to increase its influence in the area.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently released a statement in which he called China’s pursuit of resources in the South China Sea “completely unlawful.” While the United States has long opposed China’s actions in the sea, this was the first time Mr Pompeo called China’s actions illegal. He expressed the US’s intention to stand by its allies in the region and put an end to China’s “campaign of bullying.” China responded by accusing the US of distorting facts and hindering the ability of the Indo-Pacific nations to come to a peaceful agreement.
Over the last several months, the United States has sent naval ships through the South China Sea, claiming it is exercising its ‘Freedom of Navigation’ rights. United States military vessels have travelled within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed territory multiple times, while China has expelled US missile destroyers, claiming their presence was an “intrusion and violation of Chinese sovereignty.” These interactions continue to heighten tensions between the nations’ naval branches.
Since January 2020, there have been several clashes between the growing militaries of China and its neighbouring countries as well, most notably Vietnam. In April, China sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, deepening tensions between the two nations.
History of conflict
China has claimed control of over 90% of the South China Sea since the creation of the ‘nine-dash line’ in 1953 when the ruling Kuomintang party seized the territory from Japan following World War II. China has maintained its claim to both the land and sea territories despite recent claims by several countries that its control over the area is in violation of international law. Other nations that claim rights to part of the South China Sea are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.
In recent years, the most contentious stand-offs have been between Vietnam and China and the Philippines and China, including several incidents in 2012 where China was accused of sinking or sabotaging Vietnamese and Philippine ships. The incidents caused protests to erupt in both nations calling for a lasting solution to the on-going maritime tensions.
Many of the nations in dispute with China called for ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to find a peaceful solution, but after initial efforts were unsuccessful, the Philippines took China to a UN tribunal, charging China with violating the policies of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea. The tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines, citing China in violation of the Philippines’ sovereign rights. The tribunal also ruled that China’s historical ‘nine-dash line’ claim to the sea had no legal basis. China denied the ruling, claiming it null and void.
At the ASEAN 2020 Summit held in June, the 10-member committee ruled that the 1982 UN treaty that outlines countries’ rights to the world’s oceans would be the basis for determining control in the South China Sea. The treaty created Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that determine each country’s territory. In the treaty, an EEZ is defined as an area where only the country it belongs to can fish and explore natural resources. However safe passage must be granted to foreign vessels passing through the zones. China has been accused of violating EEZ policy in both Vietnam and the Philippines.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
The eight nations and territories bordering the South China Seas (China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam) have a combined population of nearly 2 billion people – nearly three out of every ten people on earth. What makes this region spiritually significant is that nearly 90% of people living in these nations are ‘unreached’ and ‘unchurched’. The Philippines is the only predominantly Christian nation in the region. Indonesia is the biggest Muslim nation in the world.
After China denied the Hague ruling in 2016 (in terms of the Philippines’ appeal to the UN), several protests broke out in Manila, attended by over 600 Filipinos and Vietnamese, including seven priests who led protesters in a prayer calling for a peaceful resolution. Since then, Filipino politician Alan Peter Cayetano has led the nation in prayer, as he described the two ways to end the conflict: prayer and diplomacy. “I’m praying every day and I’m praying hard for a miracle to happen to resolve the South China Sea issue,” he said. As the only Christian nation in the South China Sea region, the Filipino Church has taken the lead in praying for a peaceful solution. According to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, many of the countries involved in the dispute, despite increasing their military presence, could not afford to go to war with China. Because of this, Mr Cayetano has continued to call for those in the Philippines to lift the region up in prayer.
The insatiable drive for valuable resources (oil, gas, etc.) being played out in the South China Seas, is currently being repeated in many locations across the world. However, in the spiritual ‘economy’, human souls are the most valuable ‘resource’ and the spiritual battle being waged should not be underestimated. Scripture reminds us that the Devil is a “roaring lion seeking who he may devour” (1 Pe 5:8) and he regularly sows discord and destruction to achieve his aims. It is important that the larger body of Christ join with believers in the region in praying that peaceful negotiations will prevail, rather than military might, which could result in many souls being lost.
Pray for the following:
- For the de-escalation of tensions among all nations involved
- For the Lord to raise up skilful negotiators who can resolve disputes effectively, rather than nations resorting to increased military spending
- For the Asia-Pacific Church to encourage peace and to continue to pray for a peaceful solution