When pondering global military confrontations, the Spratly Islands are probably not at the top of your list or even on the list for that matter. Yet, this archipelago in the South China Sea continues to fester as a potential flashpoint for war, or, as it is now called – “kinetic military action.”
The Spratlys are located about halfway between Vietnam and the Philippines. While the 750 or so islands and coral reefs encompass a nautical area around a 160,000 square miles, the actual combined land mass is less than 2 square miles. I bet my Chevy Aveo is bigger than some of those “islands.” Despite its diminutive size, no less than six countries lay partial or complete claim to this island chain. The lucky contestants are China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
However, it’s the involvement of a seventh country that really muddies the disputed Spratly waters. This month the United States conducted naval drills with the Philippines. And, you can bet that it wasn’t the Brunei navy that they were practicing to fight. China is none too pleased to see the U.S. conducting military exercises in what it considers its sphere of influence.
The U.S.-Philippines drill was part of several annual joint military activities carried out under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Talk about a Cold War dinosaur. There's nothing “mutual” about such an agreement. On what planet are the Philippines going to save the United States from an attack? However, this treaty serves as a tripwire for disaster. A country like the Philippines can be much bolder if it believes it has its back covered by a superpower.
This month the US has also held military exercises near the Spratlys with our nemesis of yesteryear – Communist Vietnam. Oh my, how times have changed. Commenting on this joint military exercise, US Rear Admiral Tom Carney said, “This exchange helps our respective sailors gain a greater understanding of one another and builds important relationships between our navies for the future.” It’s a shame that this “spirit of cooperation” didn’t take place 50 years ago when it could have averted the bloodshed that would follow.
While containing communism has been replaced with the “war on terror” as the imperative for “making the world safe for democracy,” China has emerged as the top contender as a conventional-style US adversary. The Spratlys offer a nautical test course which the players can “show their resolve” or offer “provocations,” depending which side you are on. The United States and China may consider this island group as part of its “theater of operations,” but its more like the theater of the absurd. As the Falklands War demonstrated back in 1982, big ships are just big targets for modern missiles.
Visualize a role reversal in which the Chinese Navy conducts joint military maneuvers with Venezuela in the Caribbean followed by exercises with Cuba. Chinese statements about mutual cooperation and protecting the integrity of sea lanes would hardly be comforting or believable. Tensions would escalate with military confrontation a distinct possibility or probability.
Unlike the Caribbean, the Spratlys are quite sparse. Perhaps this sparseness serves as an enticement for testing military capabilities. Birds and sea turtles are the only non-combatants likely to get hurt in any initial crossfire. To add “importance” to the Spratly Islands, they are often cited in reports as being “potentially” rich in oil and natural gas deposits. However, the only actual natural resource found to date is guano, and that’s not something we should be stepping into.