Global logisticians now have two reasons to dust down their contingency plans to cope with heightened supply chain risks in the Far East -- financial and now political. As mentioned in my last blog: "Heightened global supply chain risks herald gathering storms?" the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply's latest quarterly risk index shows that the risk of disruption to corporate supply chains is running at an almost record high, and in particular highlights China's slowdown and its manufacturing sectors at serious risk of defaulting on state-backed loans. So much for the financial risks but now comes the political, which if realized will have far greater adverse, global economic consequences.
The problem is the potential flashpoint over China's development of artificial islands in the South China Sea, around the largely uninhabited Paracel and Spratly islands, a region potentially rich in oil and gas but contested by geographically much closer countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. China says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracels and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims. Vietnam says it has actually ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th century and has the documents to prove it. The other major claimant is the Philippines, which invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratlys as the main basis of its claim for part of the islands' grouping.
China's fatuous claim lacks merit and is akin to Britain, say, reclaiming the Hawaiian Islands, previously called the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich and whose flag today contains a Union Jack. Geographical proximity must surely be a more valid claim, which does not favour China.
The fear is that, natural resources apart, China's moves are politically motivated, and America's President Barack Obama said that his county is concerned that China is "flexing its muscles and power" to dominate smaller countries in the region. According to American estimates, China has expanded the artificial islands in the Spratly chain to 2,000 acres, up from only 500 last year. It has already built an airstrip capable of taking jet fighters. If China' activity continues apace it would give them defacto control of the maritime territory they claim, said Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the US Pacific Command, speaking to the US Senate. That means China could base warships and 'planes on the islands, and install long range detection radars, potentially giving them the ability to enforce an air defence identification zone.
China has embarked on a substantial modernization of its maritime and paramilitary forces, as well as naval capabilities to enforce its sovereignty and jurisdiction claims, if necessary. At the same time it is developing capabilities that could put US forces in the region at risk in a conflict. The flip side of this development is a significant rearmament programme by China's smaller neighbours who feel threatened by China's posturings. They are prioritizing their spending on their navies amid the rising tensions in the South China Sea, with annual defence spending in South East Asia projected to reach $52 billion by 2020, up from the expected $42 billion this year, and submarines will feature prominently in that.
Peter Dutton, professor of Strategic Studies and Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the American Naval War College, said: "Tensions in the South China Sea pose an economic security risk to the entire globe." He went on the say that: "If a flare up were to arise between China and one of its smaller neighbours those global trade routes could be affected, hurting the world economy." It is not difficult to see why. Each year an estimated $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea, with US trade accounting for $1.2 trillion of the total. In 2013 the US exported $79 billion of goods to countries around the South China Sea and imported $127 billion from that region. Should a crisis occur the diversion of cargo ships to other routes would harm regional economies as a result of increased insurance rates and longer transits. Even if shipping companies still attempted to pass through the area during a conflict, whether to access resources there or to cut transit times, "the insurance costs would be prohibitive," said Peter Dutton.
There are some who feel that the trade routes and the concern over freedom of navigation will never become a point of contention in the region because, as the argument goes, everyone needs the shipping lanes to function, most of all China. But if recent history is any guide politicians pay scant regard to economics.
Sensible global logisticians, therefore, should reassess their vulnerability to any disruption to trade passing through the South China Sea, especially if they are reliant on JIT deliveries of component supplies that are only sourced from that region, and so avoid a repeat of the upheaval caused by the Japanese tsunami of 2011, which cost global corporations around the world billions of dollars.