Slippery sea frontiers

2011-09-16 00:00

THE Indian Navy revealed recently that one of its vessels, the amphibious assault ship INS Airavat, was hailed by a Chinese naval officer demanding to know why it was in Chinese territory — while it was actually off the Vietnamese coast heading for the Vietnamese port of Haiphong. And last week it was reported that a Chinese spy ship was discovered in India’s Andaman Islands earlier this year.

A quarter of a world away, in the eastern Mediterranean, the consequences of Israel’s seizure of a Turkish aid vessel heading for Gaza in May of last year continue to unfold. Israel steadfastly refuses to apologise for the deaths of nine Turks who were killed by Israeli commandos in the attack, and on September 8 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that future aid vessels to Gaza would be escorted by the Turkish Navy.

If this sort of thing goes on, it is plausible to imagine a point at which countries with real military power — Israel and Turkey, or India and China — will start shooting at each other. Moreover, all these countries except Turkey have nuclear weapons, although it is hard to imagine them being used in a conflict at sea. On the other hand, it is the sea and its slippery boundaries that makes such confrontations possible.

You can attack a land border if you really want to, but it is a very big decision with incalculable consequences: a declaration of war, in effect. Even the most arrogant or paranoid governments will think long and hard before embarking on such an action, and generally they end up by deciding not to do it. Whereas at sea you can easily drift into a serious military confrontation that neither side intended.

Early this month, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, and Erdogan’s announcement that the Turkish Navy will escort future aid convoys raises the prospect of actual military clashes between the two.

Erdogan cannot stand by and let any more Turkish citizens be killed, nor can he stop future convoys from seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel’s refusal to apologise for killing Turkish citizens makes it politically impossible for him to defy Turkish public opinion on this. And yet if Turkish warships escort the next convoy, it’s easy to imagine an outbreak of shooting.

All Israel’s wars hitherto have been with poorly armed and badly led Arab armies in non-industrialised countries. A war with Turkey would be a very different matter, even if it remained a purely maritime conflict. But Israeli politics will not let Netanyahu back down either — and because it’s at sea, nobody really knows where the red lines are.

Israel attacked last year’s aid flotilla well beyond the limits of the blockade zone it had declared around Gaza, and might do so again. Israel would have local air superiority, but the Turkish warships would be on hair-trigger alert for an attack. This could end very badly.

Even that is small potatoes compared to the potential for a naval conflict in the South China Sea. China insists that virtually the whole sea is its territory, with claimed boundaries that skim the coasts of all the other countries that border the sea: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

China bases its claim on its historic sovereignty over the clusters of low-lying islands in the middle of the sea, the Paracels and the Spratlys. But Hanoi says that Beijing never claimed sovereignty until 1940, and that the islands had actually been controlled by Vietnam since the 17th century. They were certainly under Vietnamese control until 1974, when China seized them by force, killing several Vietnamese soldiers in the process.

The Philippines also claims some of the islands, and all four Southeast Asian countries reject China’s claim to own the sea bed rights practically up to their beaches. To make matters worse, there are now believed to be enormous reserves of oil and gas under the sea’s shallow waters. Worst of all, the South China Sea is a maritime highway connecting Europe, the Middle East and South Asia with East Asia, and none of the other major powers is willing let it fall under exclusive Chinese control. That’s why an Indian warship was visiting Vietnam last July, and why the United States is selling more warships and helicopters to the Philippines.

It’s a slow-burning fuse, but this is the most worrisome strategic confrontation in the world today.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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