The disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea are approaching a tipping point.
As former ASEAN secretary-general Rodolfo Severino said last month: “The disputes cannot be resolved anytime soon, if at all. The most that can be done is to prevent them developing into armed conflict.”
It now appears that may be almost impossible. And any ensuing conflict will not be an extended version of the skirmishes between fishing vessels and patrol boats that have gone on for years.
No, it will be the fire next time. And every country in the region will be sucked into the cauldron.
Let us recap this frighteningly nasty can of worms.
The body of water around which Southeast Asian nations lie is the South China Sea – not the West Philippine Sea or the East Sea, as Manila and Hanoi respectively now prefer to call it.
The reason is because it sits south of China, not because it “belongs” to China, any more than the Irish Sea belongs to Ireland, or the Persian Gulf to Iran.
There are six claimants to all or part of the sea, which is traversed by over one-third of world shipping and holds rich fishing stocks and vast reserves of oil and gas.
Only three of the six really count: China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
An infamous “nine-dash line” marking Beijing’s claim runs round the entire sea, hugging the coast of the Philippines and Vietnam and swallowing all their offshore territories.
Naturally, they are furious and their fury has recently boiled over on several fronts.
It began in June, when Hanoi passed a law stating that the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which pepper the sea, are Vietnamese territory.
China retorted by setting up a municipality and a military garrison on the Paracels, which it has occupied since evicting the Vietnamese in 1974.
Concurrently, Beijing beefed up its presence at the Scarborough Shoal, 198 kilometres west of Subic Bay, forcing a dangerous confrontation with Manila.
At the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh last month, the Philippines and Vietnam urged their colleagues to publicly support them.
Cambodia, this year’s chairman, would not allow it.