Recent developments in the South China Sea (SCS) and statements made by the claimant states party to the dispute paint a worrying picture for regional peace and stability.
Beijing’s continued militarization of the features it holds, including deployment of military jamming equipment, offensive anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles, and strategic bombers, has been well-documented.
In addition, Philippines Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano recently said that Manila had informed Beijing of its red lines regarding the latter’s actions in those waters. According to him, President Rodrigo Duterte would be willing to “go to war” with China if the following red lines were breached: no building on Scarborough Shoal; no attempts to remove the Philippine Navy ship anchored in what Manila views as the West Philippine Sea; and no unilateral drilling for natural resources.
Reciprocally, Beijing’s red lines sought to ensure that uninhabited features remained uninhabited, and not to “embarrass each other in front of everyone, in front of multilaterals and bilaterals” – as Mr Cayetano put it – preferring to discuss and negotiate privately.
A week ago, the Pentagon’s director of Joint Staff, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie made a provocative comment about the U.S. military’s “experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands”, in response to media questions about China’s man-made islands in the SCS. This echoed U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ vow at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore to continue pushing back against Chinese “intimidation and coercion” in these waters, deemed by Washington as inconsistent with international law.
In response, the Chinese foreign ministry questioned if U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs) were really about preserving the innocent passage of ships, or a calculated manoeuvre to maintain regional hegemony, highlighting that “this sounds like a case of a thief crying ‘stop thief’ to cover their misdeeds”. In addition, China’s senior-most delegate to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Lt. Gen. He Lei, said that the weapons deployed to the SCS are “symbols of Chinese sovereignty”. More poignantly, he emphasized that the weapons are for “national defence” and are meant to avoid “being invaded by others”.
Why is Conflict Becoming Increasingly Likely?
The hostile rhetoric and inflammatory actions taken by all parties involved – China, the United States and Southeast Asian claimant states – at the highest levels of government are incrementally but surely inching the region to the precipice of conflict. Three observations substantiate this conclusion.
First, the setting of red lines – and public announcements of what these red lines entail – is a bad idea if one wants to mitigate potential conflict situations.
While on the surface it seems like a good idea to warn states not to cross certain boundaries that one deems non-negotiable and wholly unacceptable to its national interests, doing so also reduces the flexibility of state response when these red lines are indeed crossed.
In other words, if Beijing was to decide to build facilities on Scarborough Shoal – which it administers – in future, given Manila’s public articulation of its red line against this action, it would be obliged to respond forcefully against Beijing – even if it was clear that military action was antithetical to Manila’s strategic interests.
The obligation to respond stems from the need to address domestic nationalistic concerns. Having publicly committed to going to war if the red line was crossed, the domestic populace would view the government as weak if red lines were flagrantly ignored by China. Driven by domestic politics, the government would be pressured to act against its broader national security or economic concerns.
Therefore, articulating red lines arbitrarily binds the Philippines to decisions made in advance – like going to war with China – without fully considering the prevailing geopolitical or security context at the point in future when the red line is breached. This escalates the risks of conflict, especially as Beijing continues to assert its new-found military power in the SCS.
Second, overly-hawkish statements from Washington – in particular from its senior defense planners and generals that possess decision-making powers on actions to take against perceived Chinese expansionism – are counter-productive to peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
For instance, the comment from the director of Joint Staff magnifying the capabilities of the U.S. military in potentially destroying China’s man-made islands does nothing to calm tensions down. Beijing would only see them as statements of aggression that reinforces its concern of U.S. military coercion. This is diametrically opposed to the mutual confidence-building necessary to avoid conflict.
If such statements are veiled threats attempting to cow Beijing into suspending or delaying the militarization of its SCS outposts, the strategic calculus was clearly done wrong as it would only strengthen Beijing’s resolve to step up activities to safeguard its security against U.S. ‘imperialism’.
In addition, these statements from Washington could be seen by U.S. allies and partners as an explicit commitment of support to balance China in the region. Such thinking could embolden these states to take stronger action against Beijing, with the expectation that the U.S. would come to its aid when push came to shove. This confidence is unwarranted.
More importantly, this perception of U.S. backing could drive up the risk of conflict between claimant states and Beijing – if states were convinced that Washington would be its implicit security guarantor.
Third, the likelihood of conflict in the SCS is steadily rising as China’s underlying interest and intention in claiming the waters marked by its ‘nine-dash’ line becomes more transparent.
Over the years, scholars and government officials have postulated that Beijing was interested in claiming sovereignty over the SCS due to the rich energy and fish resources in those waters; its expanding ambitions to project naval power into Southeast Asia and eventually into the Western Pacific; and its desire to extend its jurisdiction for domestic nationalistic purposes.
But China’s recent statements confirm the hypothesis that top policy-makers in Beijing are fundamentally concerned about its national security. Its Foreign Ministry pointed out that the U.S. military presence in the region was “greater than that of China and other countries…combined” and that Beijing’s militarization was designed to deter invasion. It views the SCS as its backwaters that it must monitor and control to avoid future U.S. coercion.
In other words, the SCS acts as a strategic security buffer, should Washington decide to take more aggressive action against the middle kingdom in the event of deteriorating U.S.-China relations.
Viewed from this perspective, Beijing will certainly not surrender its sovereignty ‘rights’, and it stands to reason that it will become progressively more assertive – notwithstanding the Declaration of Conduct signed with ASEAN and the Code of Conduct that is currently in negotiation.
Is Overt Military Conflict in the SCS Impending in the Short Term?
All three factors – claimant states setting red lines, Washington seeking to balance China by supporting states in Beijing’s periphery, and clarity over Beijing’s underlying fears – suggest an increasingly heated security landscape in the SCS.
Yet it remains unlikely that overt military conflict will result in the near future. While diplomatic jostling and military posturing will inevitably continue – including U.S FONOPS that protest Beijing’s sovereignty claims – America and China understand the slippery slope that conflict between the global hegemon and the rising great power will engender.
For the United States, engaging in maritime skirmishes with a nuclear weapon state over islands/features that it has no claims over is foolhardy and reckless, and therefore unlikely to happen. Beijing’s apprehension over precipitating a war that could destabilize the rule of the Chinese Communist Party also cannot be underestimated. Lastly, Southeast Asian claimant states are likely to exercise prudence knowing its military prowess pales in comparison to the People’s Liberation Army.
One can only hope that these pragmatic constraints continue to effectively deter states from engaging in coercive competition. Peace and stability in the region depends on it.
Jansen Tham holds a Masters in Public Policy degree specializing in Politics and International Affairs from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.