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Does ‘conflict’ really exist in the South China Sea?

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Philippine Coast Guard personnel on board a rubber boat after they delivered medical supplies to the military chartered Unaizah May 4 as a China Coast Guard vessel (back) sails nearby during a supply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea. Beijing has had islands and sea disputes with four southeastern Asian nations for decades, but the disputes are well managed mainly through diplomatic channels instead of military ones, ensuring more than 40 years of peaceful and rapid prosperity in the region, the writer says. – Picture: Jam Sta Rosa / AFP / Taken on March 5, 2024

By Zhu Ming

As research fellow on Africa, I always keep reading many Africa media directly via hard copies and their websites. Recently, I happened to read one article which was first published by SA online newspaper Daily Friend. In this article, the author argues that:

“Historians might yet write of our times and the conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine, and the South China Sea as factors which accelerated or sparked the onset of global war.”

When I read it, I could not help feeling very surprised. I am afraid that the label of “conflict” on the South China Sea issue (between Beijing and Manila) is quite misleading and unsuitable.

To prove my argument, I do not want to provide my version of this issue since different people surely have their own different perceptions of this issue based on different analytic approaches and information sources. It would be a waste of time to debate on which version is closer to de facto truth.

But we could try one simple approach instead. What we need to do is just to clarify some basic indisputable facts with quite simple questions.

Has the “conflict” in the South China Sea caused the loss of tens of thousands of lives, including innocent babies like in the ongoing Middle East conflict?

Has the “conflict” in the South China Sea caused a refugee crisis of scale (such as the more than one million displaced in Gaza)? And has it produced severe spill-over effects on its neighbouring countries like the Ukraine conflict?

Has the “conflict” in the South China Sea been a hot one which has consumed millions of tons of missiles, bullets and other military equipment as in the other two conflicts?

ALL the answers are “NO”.

In fact, not to mention any loss of life or properties in the South China Sea, not a single soldier’s finger is cut or hurt up to now, since the beginning of Beijing-Manila “conflict”.

The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine are typically “hot” wars meanwhile what is happening in the South China Sea is utmost “cold” confrontation. To some extent, it is another “storm in a teacup”. The wrongly used word, “conflict”, is quite misleading and could make the reader over-estimate today’s geopolitical tensions. Their differences are so big that it is quite unreasonable to category them into the same group.

Beijing has had islands and sea disputes with four southeastern Asian nations for decades, but the disputes are well managed for decades mainly through diplomatic channels instead of military ones. That is one reason that the vast land of East Asia including China plus SE Asia have enjoyed more than 40 years of peaceful and rapid prosperity. Most Asians including the Chinese and Filipino cherish peace and adopt a peaceful approach as before.

But why does the media label it as “conflict”? I think it is mainly due to the China factor. Now anything bad (regardless of whether it is true) about Beijing easily becomes headline news especially in the West. But western media sometimes is blind to many tragedies happening in the developing nations, e.g. 1994 Rwanda genocide.

In today’s world, the narrative of war is ongoing. The keywords of international news are important components of the war since human mindsets are shaped by what they hear, watch and listen. We should give a second thought to the information that we get from news, since some words might be wrongly used and misleading.

Dr Zhu Ming is a Research Fellow at the Centre for West-Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS). Non-resident research fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) of University of Johannesburg