It is difficult to overstate the economic and military importance of the South China Sea, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Over half the annual tonnage of all the world's merchant navies is shipped through adjacent sea routes here, and the region sees a third of the world's maritime traffic. Eighty percent of China's crude oil imports pass through here, and the seafloor holds an estimated 130 billion barrels of crude oil and 9.3 trillion cubic meters (328 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas.
During her last visit in the Cook Islands, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton met with representatives from allies, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Philippines, as well as ones from Vietnam, America's former enemy. "The Pacific is big enough for all of us," Clinton told them. However, some have reasons to doubt that statement because they know the US and its allies have rivals in the region, as well: North Korea and China.
The China's new flagship, the Varyag, whose keel was originally built by the Soviets, is now being put into service by the China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Shipyard employees spent years working on the colossal ship, drilling and welding. Then the Varyag disappeared a total of 10 times for sea trials, leaving geostrategists and naval experts from Tokyo to Washington endlessly speculating about where the ship might be at any given moment and with what kinds of weapons and airplanes China would decide to outfit it.
Since late August, the ship has once again been docked in Dalian. On the morning of September 2, observers noticed a team of painters at work and, by the afternoon of the next day, the result of their work could be seen: an enormous number "16" emblazoned on the gray hull of the ship. This, it seems, will be the identification number of the first aircraft carrier put into service by China's naval forces, a number said to have been chosen in honor of Admiral Liu Huaqing, father of the modern Chinese navy, who was born in 1916.
In the West Pacific, tensions have been rising for months between China and America's partners. Beijing is in a dispute with Manila over the Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited rocky atoll, most of which is only above sea level at low tide. This May, Washington quietly negotiated a compromise in which ships from both China and the Philippines would withdraw from the region. Since then, however, the Chinese navy has blocked off the lagoon and its excellent fishing waters and once again sent ships to patrol the area.
At the same time, China is at odds with Japan over another uninhabited island group -- known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese -- located near a key shipping lane between Taiwan and Okinawa. In August, activists from Hong Kong hoisted a Chinese flag on one of the islands, triggering a wave of patriotic enthusiasm on the mainland.
China has snubbed its socialist neighbor Vietnam this June by establishing a city on the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Hanoi, as are the Spratly Islands further to the south. At the same time, Beijing began building a military garrison on the Paracel Islands. This latest step makes it clear that China is laying claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, an area of nearly 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) that American strategists refer to as the "cow's tongue" owing to its peculiar shape.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii and raised in Indonesia, has declared a strategic "pivot" of US military strategy to the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, the Pacific is more important to the US' future than Europe or the NATO territory along the coasts of the Atlantic. Obama traveled to Australia last year to personally announce plans for a new US Marine base there, and his administration has plans for conducting joint maneuvers with Vietnam as well as for setting up ultra-modern equipment in Japan as part of a missile defense system for Asia.
The 7th Fleet, established in 1943 and now stationed in Japan and Guam, is already the US Navy's largest and strongest force, with more than 60 warships and around 40,000 personnel. In the coming years, it will be expanded even further so that, by 2020, some 60 percent of all American warships will be stationed in the Pacific -- more than in the Atlantic and also more than in the Persian Gulf, which has been considered the US Navy's main focus in recent decades.
One of the primary reasons for this fundamental shift on the part of Obama's administration is China's build-up of its military forces, especially its navy. A congressional study published on August 10 suggested that the United States considers the modernization of China's navy an aggressive act. According to the study, Beijing is by no means simply trying to protect its trade routes and its citizens abroad but, rather, is determined to assert its territorial claims, push back the US' influence in the Pacific and underline its status as a global military power.
To these ends, the study continues, China has, among other things, developed ballistic anti-ship missiles that are the first capable of striking aircraft carriers that were previously considered more or less unassailable. In military jargon, these missiles are known as "carrier killers." The congressional study goes on to state that China has also launched three nuclear submarines of its own design that are capable of firing nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles, that the country also wants at least two aircraft carriers of its own construction, and that it plans to undertake "reforms and improvements in maintenance and logistics, naval doctrine, personnel quality, education, training and exercises."
Some observers consider a military conflict between China and the US "very unlikely," the study states, in part given the "significant US-Chinese economic linkages and the tremendous damage that such a conflict could cause on both sides." Yet, even in the absence of such a conflict, the balance of military power between the two nations "could nevertheless influence day-to-day choices made by other Pacific countries," including "the political evolution of the Pacific."
China's navy, has a great deal of catch-up. The Varyag will be put into service this year, but Beijing will need at least three to six more "proper" aircraft carriers, while the navy's importance within China's forces as a whole needs to be considerably enhanced. Currently, the personnel ratio between China's army and navy is 7 to 1.5, while the desired ratio is 5 to 2.5 -- which would still be more sparing than in the US armed forces.
If the desired ratio were indeed established, China, with its enormous number of troops as a whole, would field the world's largest navy, with nearly 500,000 sailors -- although China's total number of soldiers will soon be reduced from its current level of 2.3 million to 2 million and, later, to 1.5 million.
By Guylain Gustave Moke