What Africa can learn from the South China Sea dispute

By Samir Bhattacharya
Article What Africa can learn from the South China Sea dispute

On April 23, another skirmish took place between China and the Philippines when two Filipino patrol boats approached the shallow turquoise waters of a disputed shoal around 194 kilometres west of the Philippine Islands province of Palawan. While the patrol boats were there for an underwater survey, China reacted as the survey location was close to a disputed shoal claimed by both China and the Philippines. A Chinese coast guard, via radio, instructed them to leave the area and threatened hostile measures. Following several radio exchanges, the irate Chinese coast damaged both the Philippine patrol boats by firing high-pressure water cannons at them. In the history of conflicts in the South China Sea, this encounter was among the most intense.

However, this was not the first time China’s assertion over the South China Sea put it in conflict with its other South China Sea neighbours, including Japan and South Korea. China has used an unconvincing U-shaped “nine-dash line” that crosses the exclusive economic zones, or EEZs, of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam to demonstrate its claim in the region. Despite their low intrinsic value, the region lies along a vital trade and supply corridor that supports over $3 trillion in yearly shipborne commerce. Oil, gas, and fishing sources abound in the area.

Beijing has declined to acknowledge a 2016 international arbitration decision from a Hague court connected with the United Nations that ruled Beijing’s broad claims invalid based on historical grounds. China and the Philippines have already fought many times over the Second Thomas Shoal and the Bashi Channel. China has become increasingly aggressive in the region in the last few years, putting regional stability at high risk. So far, these skirmishes will likely remain regional without the risk of any full-scale war. However, there are risks of casualties or even the vessel capsizing.

What Africa can learn?
Even while the socioeconomic repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine war have not yet wholly subsided in Africa, the ongoing skirmishes in the South China Sea represent another severe threat to the world economy, directly affecting several African nations. Despite being geographically far, conflict’s spill over effect may impact food security across the continent through the availability and pricing of some food crops. In addition, South and Southeast Asia represent a crucial geographic sweet spot for Africa as a source of trade and investment, translating into growth and development for many African economies. The crisis can potentially fuel price rise, particularly for oil-importing countries. The prospect of a price rise of essential commodities will have enormous ramifications for domestic stability in those countries. Furthermore, many African economies rely heavily on trade, investment, and aid from South and Southeast Asia. The crisis will significantly hamper the development and growth of the continent.

There are also strategic lessons for Africa to learn from the conflict. China’s principal interest in Africa consists of protecting its BRI investments and ensuring steady trade flow. Africa is essential for China’s resource needs in order to maintain industrial growth and energy security. Therefore, securing stability in countries where China has invested is in China’s interest, just like keeping a stable relationship with China is in the interest of those investment-starved countries.

Further, since many investment projects in China are located in different African countries, these countries should be careful. China can become aggressively irredentist, even in Africa. Currently, China owns a naval base in Djibouti and a ballistic missile tracker Yuan Wang 5, off the coast of Durban. It has strong economic influence across the countries of Africa’s east coast thanks to its Belt Road Initiative. On the West Coast, China has many seaports either financed or constructed by Chinese entities.

If the national government fails to pay, China would happily take control of them through lease like it did in Hambantota, Sri Lanka. It can also get aggressive and attempt to buy. Caution would be expected from these African governments. In addition to Sri Lanka, other South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar also faced dire consequences due to the failure of their BRI debt payment, leading to economic crises, sometimes even political crises.

As a result of China’s intensifying sabre-rattling toward the Philippines, concerns are raised about the stability of the region. Questions are also raised concerning the possible reactions from different African countries vis-a-vis Chinese aggression in the region.

Undoubtedly, any serious conflict between China and the Philippines would be dangerous. The theory of these Coast Guard skirmishes in the Spratly Islands leading to World War III seems far-fetched. Yet, the risk of casualties or even the vessel capsizing is not improbable. Any such event would spark a major crisis in Africa.

Africa aims to balance its great power relationships. It is increasingly concerned with the aggressive posture of the Chinese in the region. On the other hand, it needs China for economic purposes. Therefore, Africa will continue to walk the tightrope where it would want US involvement in de-escalating the situation without ruffling any feathers with China.

[1] Samir Bhattacharya is Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, India’s Premium thinktank

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