South China Sea dispute

June 29, 2015

From the July-August 2015 issue of News & Letters

The exchange of threats between China and the U.S. over once uninhabited specks of land and submerged reefs in the South China Sea has heated up. As China has expanded its ambitious campaign of dredging, land reclamation, garrisoning troops and erecting military facilities in the near Malaysia and Brunei, the U.S. has repeatedly called for its halt.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines have done island building on reefs they claimed, but have loudly protested China’s. Its construction and militarization in the South China Sea in the last two years has dwarfed all other countries. They fear China’s military near their shores and what it claims.


Claims by Chiang Kai-shek in 1947, before the Chinese Revolution drove him and his Nationalist Party to refuge on Taiwan, are the basis of the “nine-dash line,” whose outline hugging the beaches of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines would make the South China Sea a Chinese lake. The U.S., which treated the Caribbean as its own American lake as it sent troops to Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Grenada over the last century, has escalated verbal warnings to China, warning them against fortifying its island constructions, and has directed military ships and planes to pass where China claims sovereignty.

The response from China has been to reassert that construction in the Spratly Islands is no different than building roads in China itself and to warn the U.S. against military movements in the South China Sea. The Communist Party-run newspaper Global Times was far more bellicose: “If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea.”

China has raised war threats before, for instance against Taiwan rejecting the One China policy in favor of independence. Belligerence toward Taiwan was always an empty threat as long as Taiwan was the source of much of the capital that allowed China to exploit its ever-expanding working class.


Likewise China, for all its manipulation of politics in Hong Kong, because it is their conduit for world capital, has tolerated opposition there—including Occupy Hong Kong and commemorations of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre—without dissolving its special status.

But the threat of skirmishes and even all-out war between capitalist powers might be more real over a submerged reef in the South China Sea. Whether China’s rulers feel the need to undercut the class opposition among workers on strike by injecting a dose of patriotic fever, or the government of a neighboring country feels compelled to yield not one rock of its sovereignty, the situation is incendiary.       

—Bob McGuire

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