The South China Sea is and will continue to be the ultimate geopolitical flashpoint of the young 21st century – way ahead of the Middle East or Russia’s western borderlands. No less than the future of Asia – as well as the East-West balance of power – is at stake.
To understand the Big Picture, we need to go back to 1890 when Alfred Mahan, then president of the US Naval College, wrote the seminal The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Mahan’s central thesis is that the US should go global in search of new markets, and protect these new trade routes through a network of naval bases.
That is the embryo of the US Empire of Bases – which de facto started after the Spanish-American war, over a century ago, when the US graduated to Pacific power status by annexing the Philippines, Hawaii and Guam.
Western – American and European — colonialism is strictly responsible for the current, incendiary sovereignty battle in the South China Sea. It’s the West that came up with most land borders – and maritime borders — of these states.
The roll call is quite impressive. Philippines and Indonesia were divided by Spain and Portugal in 1529. The division between Malaysia and Indonesia is owed to the British and the Dutch in 1842. The border between China and Vietnam was imposed to the Chinese by the French in 1887. The Philippines’s borders were concocted by the US and Spain in 1898. The border between Philippines and Malaysia was drawn by the US and the Brits in 1930.
We are talking about borders between different colonial possessions – and that implies intractable problems from the start, subsequently inherited by post-colonial nations. And to think that it had all started as a loose configuration. The best anthropological studies (Bill Solheim’s, for instance) define the semi-nomadic communities who really traveled and traded across the South China Sea from time immemorial as the Nusantao – an Austronesian compound word for “south island” and “people”.