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A NATO Equivalent for the South China Sea

by John Brian Shannon | July 31, 2016

China is growing and modernizing rapidly, of that there’s no doubt. With an economy second only to the United States, and home to 1.35 billion citizens, it’s the country that created the largest manufacturing sector in recorded history.

Due to globalization, events in China (whether positive or negative) can have profound and worldwide ramifications

Therefore, it makes sense that China is attempting to shore-up it’s marine security in the South China Sea through which $5 trillion worth of goods pass annually.

A good case could be made that China would be remiss if it didn’t take reasonable measures to ensure that all shipping in the region (whether it is en-route to China or not) is safe from at-sea piracy attempts and seaborne terrorist attack

It has been noted by sailors for hundreds of years that complex navigational hazards await those ships that navigate through the busy South China Sea.

The waterway is full of sandbars, shoals, partially submerged islets, and some islets are only visible at low tide, while others lurk only a few feet beneath the surface of the sea — safe enough for 5-person sailboats to pass over, but exceedingly dangerous for container ships to traverse. Running aground and getting stuck half-out of the water on top of the shoal or sandbar is incredibly dangerous.

Once a distress call goes out, pirate ships operating in the region are ‘magnetically attracted’ to those grounded ships. If you think that piracy-at-sea is a big problem with a ship capable of running at full speed and able to quickly change course, you’ll understand what happens to a ship and crew that is stuck on a sandbar for a few days. You don’t want to be that crew, ever. Just one more reason to have a strong anti-piracy component operating in the South China Sea.

South China Sea dispute

South China Sea nations. Image courtesy of AFP.

Where such islets are located in North American waters, they were long ago deemed navigational hazards and were either destroyed via explosive charges or had lighthouses with foghorns installed on them to constantly warn ships of their location. A few have a runway installed so that patrol aircraft can refuel. Which is exactly what China has been working on in recent months.

Surprising to nobody is that some of China’s neighbours are concerned that the huge and powerful nation not all that far from them could become even more powerful than now, and it could decide to be not as nice to deal with as it has been in recent years.

In such case, those islets could be heavily militarized and used as jumping-off points for an attack on the much smaller South China Sea nations. (At least, that’s the fear)

Which gives more reason for all South China Sea nations to work together to craft a common strategy for China’s security and their own security.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of China to the global economy which depends on it to drive demand for resources and agriculture

Building upon the uber-successful NATO model, an organization of Atlantic Ocean member nations and having conducted millions of operations in the Atlantic ocean since it’s creation on April 4, 1949, is the most logical way for China to gain the additional security it needs — while proving to regional neighbours that it poses no threat to them and is merely working towards a clearly demarcated, safe shipping zone for the South China Sea.

Even the leaders of the world’s most powerful nation the United States of America, know that nothing of lasting significance can be achieved by one country acting alone.

Therefore and in that context, I respectfully urge President Xi Jinping of China to work with all of the nations of the South China Sea in a spirit of mutual trust and goodwill in an effort to jointly address the opportunities of regional maritime security.

Mr. President, please make the South China Sea nations ‘part of the solution instead of part of the problem’

In this way, by taking the lead in the creation of a mutually beneficial organization, not only will maritime security in the region improve, but other upgrades to diplomatic relations around the world will surely follow.

Spratly Islands in the Spotlight

by John Brian Shannon | October 27, 2015

The Spratly Islands are a hodgepodge of islets that sometimes appear above sea level in the South China Sea

At high tide, only a few islets are visible above the waterline, while at low tide most of the islets are exposed. Which is concerning enough for ship Captains sailing in perfectly clear midday weather — but can be downright terrifying at night, or during a storm or typhoon with the ship being tossed around by waves as it is simultaneously pulled along by the incredibly powerful and deep currents in that waterway.

The Spratly’s are also located in the centre of a typhoon corridor, which means there are frequent distress calls during the annual storm season. Depending upon local weather conditions the islands can vanish under the waves by a few feet, or they can appear above the surface of the water.

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

Until now, the Spratly Island chain was merely a complex navigational challenge for ships to navigate around, especially at night or in inclement weather

Recently, China began a dredging/island reclamation project on one of the Spratly Islands to turn one or more of the islets into air bases, presumably to serve as a refueling station for their long range patrol or military aircraft, or possibly for civilian airliners in distress.

Military planes aircraft are notoriously thirsty aircraft — either because they are long range patrol aircraft of significant size and weight and therefore use a lot of fuel, or are lightweight, high-performance fighter aircraft which use even more fuel per hour. Having a nearby refuelling station/landing strip can lower the stress level of military pilots to put it mildly.

And for ships that have encountered rough weather or have had mechanical difficulties, the Spratly Islands are located perfectly should China decide to maintain a Chinese Coast Guard presence there. It is the logical place to deploy from in order to rescue passengers from ships in distress or aircraft crashed in the water.

Finally, in the case of combatting at-sea piracy and to conduct anti-terrorism inspection of suspect ships, the Spratly Islands are well-positioned to host the necessary aircraft, ships and anti-terror personnel.

IF that is what China is planning, they are doing a good deed for all of the shipping and aircraft that pass through that waterway and smart nations that regularly travel through the region might consider contributing funds or other assistance to that noble endeavor.

The fear has been raised that the Spratly airbases could be used as a ‘jumping-off point’ for attacks by China on Southeast Asian nations

Well yes. That could happen. But then again, a big piece of plasma could be ejected by the Sun and crash into Earth wiping out all life on the planet. Neither is very likely, yet it is theoretically possible that either (or both) could happen.

It just depends if you see the glass as half-full or half empty

If you see the United States and its partners as nations that are sliding from their historical high place in the world and are now feeling threatened by China’s incredible economic surge, then it’s understandable that the U.S. and its partners might base their decisions on fear.

If you don’t think the sky is falling, then the Spratly’s are a ‘tempest-in-a-teapot’ and that ships should continue to navigate as carefully around those islets as they’ve done for centuries.

If it were up to me

Were the decision up to me, or if we had a stronger UN body, the suggestion would be to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes — boring holes deep beneath the islands to safely place an appropriately sized bomb, in order to liquefy all of the rock 5 miles below the islands.

By deploying a number of tiny nuclear devices deep under the rock formations upon which those islands stand, the rock strata far below the islets could be liquefied, allowing the islets to sink deep below the surface — permanently removing those threats to shipping in the region.

This has been done before, and with zero radiation release into the air or water. It’s a completely enclosed detonation and like the molten magma deep under the Earth’s crust it would never come anywhere near the atmosphere or seawater.

One would hope that one islet would be spared for the purposes of building a massive emergency base that all Southeast Asian nations would “own a share of” and “feel comfortable enough with” to contribute aircraft, ships and personnel in order to maintain a high level of anti-piracy/anti-terrorism readiness, for rescue missions, and to carry forward-based and rapid assistance to future tsunami/earthquake victims throughout the region.

Of the choices available to us, which are the most appropriate?

  • Human beings could use our much vaunted technology to sink all of the Spratly Islands to a depth far below any ship hulls thereby removing a significant navigational hazard from the charts.
  • China could turn one of the islands into a joint rescue, anti-piracy, and anti-terrorism super-base, where  operations could operate at a high level and tsunami/earthquake aid could maintain a rapid-response level. (This could be done regardless of whether the other islets were sunk)
  • We could annoy and provoke China into a conflict over how far we allow that country to project its maritime power. That fight could escalate in a matter of minutes or days, and as both China and the U.S. are superpowers it’s possible that the conflict could spread far beyond the South China Sea.

From a purely human life and health standpoint, deaths due to shipping accidents worldwide are relatively rare, amounting to less than 8,000 people per year, while deaths due to terrorism total less than 15,000 per year, and military conflict between nations can range from small numbers of deaths up to (potentially) all life on the planet if a nuclear war between two superpowers is allowed to develop.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to resolve the situation using diplomacy. In that way, the present default slide towards conflict can be turned into a positive.

Win-Win or Lose-Lose: Our choice

Human beings will either be ‘up to the task’ of resolving the differences between nation states, or eventually there will be no life on the planet.

Let’s be civilized people and choose, Win-Win.

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