Will Indonesia win a war with China?

Beijing's imperialismThe conflict in the South China Sea

Radio message from a Chinese destroyer off the Paracel Islands:

"Filipino Plane, this is the final warning! Move away or you will be responsible for the consequences."

Such threats are common in the sea area between the Gulf of Thailand in the southwest and the Gulf of Tonking in the northwest. Nowhere in the world is so much military firepower concentrated:

Chinese warships, American aircraft carriers, Filipino destroyers, Vietnamese frigates, countless fighter jets - plus hundreds of fishing boats that want to defy their right to a good catch.

Conflict over fishing grounds, oil and gas reserves

Often they get dangerously close, and sometimes the sides of the ship crunch against each other. Fighter planes thunder threateningly over naval units at low altitude, warships provocatively record fighter jets with target radar. Dangerous muscle games.

Show presence to demonstrate that the US is not afraid of China - explains Lieutenant Lauren Callen of the US Navy during a reconnaissance mission. From her aircraft, runways and drilling platforms that China had built can be seen on many islands.

Controversial presence on the Spratly Islands: Chinese infrastructure (picture alliance / Bullit Marquez)


Spratly and Paracel - the names of two archipelagos stand for the conflict over rich fishing grounds and large oil and gas reserves. Above all, however, to control one of the most important shipping routes in the world, for trillions of dollars. A third of world trade is transacted via the South China Sea - the dispute therefore also affects Europe considerably.

"American plane. This is Chinese territory. Move away immediately and keep your distance to avoid misunderstandings."

China historically justifies its claim to the South China Sea with the so-called "nine-dash line" - the Chinese government marked its territory quite arbitrarily with pen lines on a nautical map. This is not logical if you look at the region from above - the neighboring countries of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan have much longer coastlines around the marginal sea of ​​the Pacific Ocean.

A powder keg - with the potential for war

The Philippines filed a lawsuit against the seizure of the Spratly Islands before the Permanent Court of Arbitration - in 2016 Manila was right in The Hague. But because China does not recognize the court, it also ignores the arbitration award. Beijing has long since created facts.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened at the time that he would jet ski to Scarbourough Reef to hoist the Philippine flag.

The old tensions between Manila and Beijing are just breaking out again. The Chinese Navy threatened the largest Filipino warship, and Manila drafted new diplomatic complaints. And then there was this song:

It is called "I-isang-dagat", dedicated to the heroes in the fight against the corona pandemic - the Chinese ambassador in Manila composed it. But in Filipino the text means "a sea". 'China rubs its claim to the sea area under our noses' - that's how it was received, and the Filipinos were foaming with rage.

Military tensions between the US and China are also increasing again. At the end of April, an American warship reached the Paracel Islands region. Beijing dispatched planes and ships to watch the US ship and warned to leave the region immediately. The US entered Chinese territorial waters without a permit, according to a spokesman in Beijing. The South China Sea remains a powder keg - with the potential for war.

The controversial Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea are called "Nansha" and "Xisha" in Chinese. You cannot travel there: For visitors who do not belong to the Chinese military and especially for foreign reporters, the areas are taboo - a restricted military area.

China's narrative: US blames tensions

The closest you get to the artificially built islands and reefs in the South China Sea is the city of Sanya. The popular vacation spot is located on the southern tip of Hainan, the largest island in China. Due to the corona virus, there is almost nothing going on on the idyllic beach this summer. A light breeze blows from the sea, insects chirp in the coconut palms.

An elderly man is sitting under one of the palm trees selling fresh coconuts for the equivalent of 1.50 euros each. He opens the coconuts with a cleaver and then points to the idyllic sea.

"We don't find out from the government what's going on down there in the South China Sea. Military matters are a secret."

The 70-year-old coconut seller does not want to give his name, but he likes to tell about what he knows from the Chinese state media - about the huge sea area south of his hometown.

"In the South China Sea our military is preparing for war. The US keeps sending aircraft carriers to harass China. At least that's what I've heard ... Our military has soldiers and missiles stationed in the area and is ready for a war. "

This view has been spread for years via the state-controlled media in China: It is not China or the neighboring countries that are responsible for the growing tensions in the South China Sea, but primarily the United States of America. This is also what Zhou Shixin, an Asia-Pacific expert at the Shanghai State Institute for International Studies, says.

"The US take sides and side with certain neighboring countries. But not only that: The US government is also sending warships into the region. This challenges China's national sovereignty and affects our security interests. The US is behaving very aggressively."

The US government argues differently. The South China Sea is international territory. If the US Navy is there with warships, then it is simply a matter of securing the "freedom of seafaring". Zhou Shixin from the government-loyal Shanghai Institute for International Studies disagrees.

"The US has had a new strategy for the South China Sea since 2009. The US government is no longer neutral, but is actively involved. The US is trying to influence what is happening in the South China Sea."

Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam make a claim

The fact that the actual lines of conflict in the South China Sea do not run between China and the USA, but between China and the neighboring countries, is mostly kept secret by the state and party leadership in Beijing. At least officially. This is also observed by Adam Ni, one of the directors of the China Policy Center, a think tank based in Canberra, Australia.

"This is the typical Chinese narrative: The USA is always the cause of unrest. From the point of view of the leadership in Beijing, this is understandable: If the USA stayed out, it would actually be more likely that the neighboring states would agree with China some. "

In addition to the People's Republic, five other neighbors officially raise territorial claims in the South China Sea: the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam. Depending on the geographic location, the various states name the approximately three and a half million square kilometers of the sea area differently: While in China they speak of "Nan Hai" (南海) - translated: South Sea - in Vietnam, for example, they speak of "Bien Dong" (Biển Đông), in German: Eastern Sea.

All six neighbors know that whoever is in charge of the area not only controls the rich fishing grounds and oil and gas deposits in the area, but also one of the most important shipping routes in the world. According to a study by the Berlin Science and Politics Foundation, more than 60,000 merchant ships sail through the South China Sea every year. The People's Republic of China is undoubtedly the most powerful of the neighboring countries: economically, politically and even more militarily.

And the state and party leadership is correspondingly self-confident: They claim areas in the South China Sea, some of which are more than 1,000 kilometers from the coast. Zhou Shixin from the government-loyal Shanghai Institute for International Studies confirms that the "nine-dash line" is still the basis of Chinese claims:

"China has never set its exact borders in the South China Sea. The only point of reference we have is the nine-dash line. This dashed line is shown on a nautical chart that China has given to the United Nations. China's view is that everything within that dashed line is Chinese territory. "

Unclear legal basis for China's territorial claims

Especially the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos - in Chinese Nansha and Xisha - are controversial among the neighboring countries. In recent years, the Chinese government has had buildings and airports built on the sometimes tiny islands, installed weapons and radar systems and stationed thousands of soldiers. To a much lesser extent, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines have also upgraded some of the islands. In contrast to the smaller neighboring countries, however, China's leadership not only claims individual islands, but up to 90 percent of the sea area, including all islands and reefs. The leadership in Beijing relies on traditional historical rights. Adam Ni of the think tank China Policy Center in Canberra thinks this is questionable.

"Put simply, China's leadership has no legal basis for their territorial claims. Instead, they have opted for a rather dubious legal approach to justify these claims."

Despite all international criticism, China's state and party leadership is unimpressed. It continues to pour billions each year into the island's infrastructure, both in military and civilian areas. Scientists are now researching how crops can be grown on the often scarce, sterile soil on the small islands.

Another symbolically important step was the creation of two new administrative districts in the South China Sea in mid-April. The Chinese authorities wanted to make it clear that the islands in the South China Sea are not just occupied islands, as the neighboring states say, but core Chinese territory.

(AFP) South China Sea - China and US on confrontation
In less than ten years, China should replace the USA as the world's largest economic power. At the same time, Beijing is also arming itself militarily. The result: the USA and China are getting more and more in each other's way in the Asia-Pacific region - especially in the South China Sea.

Overall, activity in the South China Sea is increasing, says Adam Ni of the China Policy Center:

"This harbors the risk of further escalation and even clashes. China in particular appears very self-confidently in various ways in the South China Sea and thus creates facts."

US Navy more present than before

The communist leadership in Beijing rejects the international criticism of this fact-finding more decisively than ever. For them, the USA remains the main aggressor in the region who has no business there.

According to a Chinese government report, the US Navy has sailed its ships through the South China Sea much more frequently in recent years than in the past. A Chinese government adviser warned at the end of June that the possibility of a military incident or an accidental engagement between China and the United States was increasing.

This view leaves the coconut seller on the idyllic beach of Sanya on the southern tip of China cold.

"Our government says: The US is bad. But we, the people, don't care. As long as we can do business with them, the rest doesn't matter. There are good and bad people in every country. That China's leadership is now saying: The US is bad, that's none of our business here. It's the politicians' business, not the normal people. "

Investors in Cambodia are crowding out locals

The noise of dozens of construction sites unites in a murderous crescendo in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Roaring excavators, rattling jackhammers, echoing steel girders. Chinese characters adorn the glass fronts of brand new shops - the few remaining Cambodian shops are struggling to survive.

"I hardly have any customers now. In the past, many tourists from the West bought from me, but since the Chinese have arrived, they have stayed away. You can hear how unbearable it has become, a single construction site. And the Chinese - they buy nothing with me, they have opened their own stores. "

Chinese entrepreneurs have invested over 12 billion dollars in the once sleepy coastal village on the Gulf of Thailand.

Karaoke bars, table dancing, night clubs, supermarkets, massage parlors, pharmacies - all Chinese. Almost 100 casinos have sprung up in Sihanoukville, more than in the Chinese gambling paradise of Macau. Cambodians are not allowed to enter. In theory, they could work in the casinos - but the Chinese owners expect their employees to be fluent in Mandarin.

Despite billions in investments, there are hardly any new jobs for locals. Exploding rents and retail prices have driven many Cambodians out of their city - into the slums on the outskirts of Sihanoukville. "It's scary," says businesswoman Sokny Say:

"The city's website celebrates the Chinese investment. The government is so happy with the commitment of the Chinese. But the people are not. Because the point is: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who rules the country dictatorially, officially receives a monthly salary of around $ 1,500 - and is a billionaire. He had the largest opposition party dissolved, and critics of the regime are brutally persecuted. And in contrast to the European Union, China is investing in the infrastructure of the underdeveloped state and providing military aid without warning that human rights should be observed, says Dr. Ian Storey from the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies.

"In Cambodia, it is certainly the elites who benefit most from this relationship. The local economy is often of little help when China invests in a country. The Chinese bring their own workers, their food, their construction materials and so on and so forth. So - there is little left in the local economy. "

Vietnamese fear for their political independence

Protesters outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi. The socialist Republic of Vietnam has taken the most clear line against the communists in Beijing.

Vietnam earns a lot of money with the production for the former war opponent USA - an attractive location for western companies. Hotschi Minh T-shirts hang next to Levi's jeans in the street markets. Especially against the background of the Vietnam War, which continues to create an identity today, Dr. Ian Storey Vietnam's relationship with China is downright schizophrenic.

"Without China, Vietnam would never have won this war. At the same time, many Vietnamese see the Chinese as arrogant and brutal in their pursuit of power and fear for their political independence."

Neighboring states in "existential fear"

It is undisputed among experts that China's political influence in Southeast Asia will continue to grow. Its military presence is also growing - and many elites in Southeast Asia are therefore convinced that China has long since overshadowed the US. A development that has accelerated in recent years, primarily because of the Trump administration.

(picture alliance / Photoshot) Arms production - "China is expanding its military power"
After the USA, China is the world's largest arms producer. The government in Beijing is about power and influence to shape the world, said security expert Christian Mölling in the Dlf.

Most Southeast Asian governments do not see themselves as a laughing third party in the dispute between the US and China. One observes the development with an almost existential fear, believes Dr. Ian Storey from the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies:

"This is what really worries the states of Southeast Asia. The question of whether Southeast Asia will be the place where the US and China will face their growing rivalry. The fear of being played off against one another. The fear of having to make a decision for one side - whether it is about trade, security, technology, armaments and so on. "

Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam or Thailand are developing well in balance between the two power blocs.Cambodia is seen as a warning not to choose one side if possible - and thus extradite.

"For us Cambodians, the Chinese look neither like friends nor like investors" - says the businesswoman Sokny Sai in Sihanoukville - "it feels more like an enemy occupation."