The main players in this story are four: China, the Philippines, the US and Japan. The stakes are enormous: the control of the waters of the South China Sea, at the crossroads of the interests of the powers involved.
For months now, the US is engaged in a verbal escalation with China. Beijing, in fact, does not hide his expansionist aims on the portion of ocean that flow through its southern coasts and it is building artificial islands to move forward to a few tens of kilometers the limits of its territorial waters. A forced widening of the borders that is putting in turmoil Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia as well, since they advance their own claims on that same sea segment.
China has repeatedly asked the US not to exacerbate the mood flying over the artificial islands with its aircrafts and bringing the ships of its fleet to sail near their coasts. The United States has responded sharply, appealing to international maritime law, and securing to its regional allies the cooperation of the US Navy for the control of Chinese positions.
It should be borne in mind that, in this area of the world, water control and the ability to put a national flag on even very small portions of landmass is not just a symbolic goal. In fact, the patrolling of certain maritime communications, through the construction of military bases, gives the direct control of shipping trade and access roads to economic and strategic fundamental resources. The control of an isolated rock or a stretch of reef may have serious repercussions in terms of economic growth and political stability.
For China is, first and foremost, a matter of regional sovereignty, with inevitable global repercussions. For the United States, the main concern is represented by the freedom of navigation in the Pacific rim, where the US has built its own supremacy, after the end of the Cold War, with the help of regional allies, primarily Japan and South Korea. However, China is now questioning this assumption, emerging as a new power in the South China Sea and making explicit its hegemonic ambitions over the area. A redefinition of the balances that Washington sees as a serious problem.
Supremacy on the water has always been a fundamental element of American global strategy. Control over the seas, assured by the military supremacy of the US Navy, guarantees fast and secure trade routes for goods going to or coming from US ports and allows to quickly move large amounts of troops in case of need, even at a great distance. But these same necessities have now become vital for China, a global power whose economy is increasingly focused on export and therefore require more control over maritime trade routes, especially in the South China Sea, rich in fishery resources and natural gas. China is therefore trying to reshape the status quo, taking advantage of the weakness of regional adversaries, unable to cope with the Asian giant on the military level, and the uncertainties of American rival, who seems unwilling to use the force of weapons to contain its expansionist ambitions.
However, the Chinese construction activities in the middle of Southern Sea provoked the strong irritation of the Southeast Asia neighbors, primary the Philippines who claim sovereignty over many of the small islands cemented by the Chinese construction activities. China, however, think that is possible to control the countries of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, acting directly on the organization at the political level and operating its economic and military levers against the single states involved. Beijing also trust to be able to manage the reactions of Washington, in the belief that the US will avoid any escalation, fearing a direct conflict in the waters of the South China Sea. The facts, so far, proved China is right.
It remains to understand what is the position of Japan within this puzzle. The power of the Rising Sun is perhaps the only opponent that China really fears, right now. For the first time in decades, Japan seems determined to take a more active role in the Pacific and the South China Sea. Tokyo recently has signed new agreements with Manila and other ASEAN countries to conduct joint operations and to facilitate the supply of its fleet and its aircrafts. In return, he offered to the Philippines and Vietnam ships and aircrafts for the Navy and the Coast Guard. Japan has also reached an agreement with the US to carry out joint patrol operations in the South China Sea, starting next year.
Why this new activism? Japan is an island, with few natural resources. Tokyo must therefore necessarily safeguard its own interests on the seas, to ensure the subsistence of the Japanese economy, and it has realized that the new Chinese expansionism is a threat that can not remain unanswered.
From the point of view of Beijing, the new policy of Tokyo is a serious problem, especially if Japan acts in synergy with the United States for the creation of a joint force in the South China Sea. The answer for now is diplomatic. Through various channels, Beijing is trying to persuade Washington not to engage in the side of Japan, suggesting that Tokyo would be pursuing only its own interests in the area. Looking ahead, China also suggest that the conflict could lead to a possible military escalation with the Philippines, supported by Japan, for of the disputed islands control. A scenario that would oblige the US to make a difficult choice: whether or not to intervene on the side of its ally, with all the military and political consequences that the decision would generate.