A War Footing in the South China Sea?

Posted on July 31, 2012


If Beijing thought that its new garrison would lead other nations to roll over, it has miscalculated.

By unilaterally creating a city government and installing a military garrison on a disputed island in the South China Sea, Beijing has further inflamed tensions and made a negotiated settlement of the Asia-Pacific’s territorial disputes less likely. The decision to emphasize military measures in this ongoing diplomatic quarrel should worry those who argued that the growth of China’s military power in recent decades was non-threatening and the natural action of a rising power.

The credibility of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to China is also being tested, and Washington must decide how to respond to Beijing’s growing assertiveness. To simply leave far weaker neighboring states to face China alone risks surrendering U.S. influence in Asia and making conflict more likely.

Beijing’s action puts the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank under the control of a new city called Sansha, along with a mayor and 45 deputies sitting in a People’s Congress. While there are approximately 1,100 Chinese citizens living on these islands, they are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China has refused to have these competing claims addressed in a multilateral setting, such as through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. After their most recent meeting, Asean ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué on South China Sea issues for the first time in nearly half a century. This was the result of Cambodia’s sensitivity to Beijing’s demand that any territorial disputes be solved on a solely bilateral basis.

All claimants in the South China Sea have minor military outposts on many of their islands, but Beijing’s action presents a further challenge to those looking for a diplomatic solution. Woody Island, the site of the new garrison, is claimed by Vietnam, and tensions between Beijing and Hanoi have reached new heights in recent months over Vietnamese moves to explore the oil-rich seabed off its coast.

While the Philippines and Vietnam occupy more islands in the Spratlys, it is nonetheless significant when China makes a public announcement that it will have a permanent forward-deployed military force within striking distance of such contested waters. From the perspective even of smaller nations that have a few soldiers on coral reefs, Beijing is the only nation in Asia that could turn the clock back to old rules of international behavior: where might makes right, and international law is irrelevant to those bold enough to challenge fortune and ignore the concerns of the world community.

If Beijing thought that its new garrison would lead other nations to roll over, it has miscalculated, at least for the moment. President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines said he will purchase new attack helicopters and surface ships to defend its claims. Vietnam has sought new partners, including the United States, with which it held its first naval exercises earlier this year. The danger is that such attempts to maintain a credible defensive posture will lead to a heightened risk of conflict.

Much of this ardor may cool in coming decades as Hanoi and Manila look at China’s long-term staying power and realize they are no match for it militarily. It is not impossible to imagine that public opinion would tire of the constant tension and demand the recall of the tiny forces on territory far away. That would leave China a freer hand to press other claims, on resource exploration and exploitation, for example, and perhaps even on freedom of navigation in waters claimed as historically Chinese.

Perhaps Beijing will not exploit its position that much. Yet the hardening of positions in the South China Sea is a problem for Washington, given its much-vaunted “rebalancing” to Asia. The State Department has so far shown no inclination even to change its rhetoric in the face of China’s actions, simply reiterating that a mutually cooperative diplomacy must solve what has now become even more of a machtpolitik challenge. Continuing such a stance, while China increases its troops in the South China Sea, will erode American credibility in Asia.

As a first step, Washington should threaten to cut off military-to-military dialogue until it gets answers on how large the garrison will be. If China increases the size of its garrison and further intimidates its neighbors, the U.S. should consider postponing future annual Security and Economic Dialogues, which so far have produced little except press releases. Washington also should come up with a concrete plan to provide enhanced intelligence and military aid to nations threatened by China’s military presence.

At best, these moves might force Beijing to realize that a truly negotiated settlement is the only way forward. At a minimum, they would show that America recognizes how China is attempting to unilaterally shape the future of the world’s most important waterway.

Michael Auslin

Time for ASEAN to stand together

China is claiming more of the South China Sea as its own. Unfortunately, China’s territorial pretensions clash with separate claims by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

SANSHA City is China’s newest municipality. Extending over two square kilometres and with 613 residents, Sansha City has its own mayor, sea and airport, supermarket, as well as a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison.

Established on the Yongxing or “Woody” Island in the Paracel Islands of the South China Sea, the municipality represents a bold assertion of Chinese control.

Sadly in the face of such brute determination, Asean has merely whimpered.

Indeed, earlier this month at the normally-staid Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Phnom Penh, the grouping revealed its ineffectiveness and lack of unity in the face of high-level lobbying from Chinese and American officials when the association failed to produce a joint communique at the conclusion of the meeting.

In short, we are in danger of becoming passive participants in the new “Great Game” – the geopolitical face-off between China and the United States.

Unsurprisingly, the main point of contention was the South China Sea, with its overlapping territorial claims, historical grudges and energy politics all jumbled up.

China claims most of the South China Sea as its own.

Unfortunately, China’s territorial pretensions clash with separate claims by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The contest is heightened because of two factors – the importance of the trading routes and the vast natural resources under the sea itself – estimated to be as much as 213 billion barrels of oil and two quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas.

China, unsurprisingly, has always been quick to assert its rights.

It clashed with Vietnam in 1974 over the Paracel Islands and came dangerously close to repeating the experience with the Philippines earlier this year when their navies engaged in a tense stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal.

A more Asia-focused United States has weighed in to support its former Philippine colony.

Troop deployments in Australia and improved relations with Myanmar and Vietnam have created a potentially explosive mix.

Meanwhile, Asean is little more than the proverbial (and increasingly scared) mousedeer caught between two feuding elephants.

In many ways, though, Asean’s indecisiveness is perhaps unsurprising.

It’s further proof that there’s little holding us together – besides the overly confident boosterism of the business community seeking to establish a unified market of over 600 million consumers.

For decades, we’ve paid lip-service to the grouping whilst pulling our separate ways.

Now, when we really need to fend off Great Power interference, we’re confronted by our lack of cohesiveness and disunity.

In short, all the golf and durian diplomacy has floundered and we’re stuck in a veritable “bunker”.

On the one hand, Cambodia’s refusal to endorse a joint communiqué at the meeting reflected its near-total economic reliance on China.

According to news reports, the Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s manner didn’t help matters either.

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines have been forced to balance their historical antipathy towards China with the reality of the Middle Kingdom’s proximity and sheer might.

Indonesia (mindful of its own size) appears to view the deadlock as an opportunity to demonstrate its regional leadership credentials.

As a consequence, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono directed his Foreign Minister, Marty Natelgawa to tour Asean in search of a fresh consensus on the issue.

For Malaysia and Singapore, the South China Sea impasse requires extreme delicacy.

As multiracial trading nations, both must assert their sovereignty and Asean credentials without alienating China.

Still, Asean must deal with contemporary realities.

Whilst we’ve been a diplomatic backwater for decades, the economically resilient grouping is no longer under the radar screen.

As one of the few economically robust regions, we’re now front and centre – besides which, with China on the rise, we’re geopolitically important.

This is all very dramatic and fun to read about but in reality it’s a painful headache as China and the United States stalk one another warily.

Let’s face it: the “Asian Century” is going to be fraught with danger and insecurity and I haven’t even begun to discuss the increasingly erratic and dysfunctional Chinese foreign policy and military apparatus.

The core issue is – do we “hang” together or go our separate ways?

We in Asean need to resolve this fundamental challenge.

Do we promote and implement “regional integration” as well as the “Asean community” or do we cut deals with China one-on-one?

The South China Sea is crunch time for Asean, and Malaysia.

We can either continue dithering and be reduced to pawns on a chessboard, or band together to show the world that we intend to live up to our geopolitical promise as well.

The choice is ours – but I guess it’ll have to wait until after the General Election. Sigh…


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