Shadow-Boxing in the South China Sea

Military deployment in the South China Sea in 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Military deployment in the South China Sea in 2009. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The sheer volume of official statements, press articles and learned commentaries in recent weeks would have us believe that a military clash is all but likely as the United States and China maneuver for advantage in the South China Sea area. And yet, both powers realise such an outcome would be disastrous. You do not enter into a conflict with your primary economic, commercial and trading partner without causing yourself – and your partner – grievous injury. But such are the pitfalls of being the two leading major powers in the world today that it is impossible to back down without suffering considerable loss of face. In addition, neither side trusts the other. This then is the heart of the matter as the US and China stare at each other just as Sumo wrestlers do, even as they look for solutions to diffuse their stand-off.

Both China and the US say that they stand for the freedom of navigation in international waters and in the air and that they would never countenance a situation whereby international shipping and air traffic is put at risk. Both know that the volume of trade passing through these waters is mammoth, about US$5 trillion. They also know that this trade is vital not only for the US and China, but also for other economic powerhouses in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, and is an economic necessity for the global economy that cannot be endangered. Three important bilateral interactions between China and the US are on the horizon; the ongoing  visit to the US of the Vice Chairman of the Chinese Military Commission, General Fan Changlong, the first in six year will culminate in talks with US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter on Thursda; the upcoming 7th round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington in June this year where the Chinese would be represented by Vice Premier Wang Yang; and the summit meeting between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama scheduled for September 2015. Neither side is willing to jeopardize the outcomes of these very important meetings.

China’s complaint

The main Chinese grouse is that the US treats it differently than others on issues relating to the South China Sea. Chinese commentators like Shen Dingli have alleged that “for a long time, Japan has been fortifying the Okinotori Islands and demanded an exclusive economic zone derived from its fortified structure. However, America has been silent on this. For a similarly long time, Vietnam has reclaimed and expanded some of the islands of the Spratly [chain] under its occupation, earlier than China is doing. Again, America has made no objection.” The Chinese maintain that upgrading and reclaiming sovereign territory is not a violation of international law and cite the examples of the reclamation of Shanghai and Hong Kong harbors. The US response is that Japanese and Vietnamese activities took place before the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea came into operation. As far as the sovereignty issue is concerned, the US officially takes no position on the merits of each case.

The Chinese also maintain that although China and Vietnam have disputes over some of the islands in South China Sea, Vietnam had agreed decades ago with the very same Chinese claims since Vietnam needed China’s support in its fight for unification first against France and later against the US. Last year, China submitted to the UN its evidence of Vietnam’s past admission of Chinaese sovereignty over the entire Spratly and Paracel islands. China feels aggrieved that Vietnam has gone back on its past commitments and feels that perhaps the US is quietly egging on the Vietnamese.

The ongoing visit of General Fan Changlong to the US, where he presumably interacted not only with the US Pacific Commander, but also with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would indeed be crucial. Last year, China participated for the first time in the RIMPAC exercise organized by the US. This was considered significant for the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fielded the second largest fleet (after the US) in the 23-nation exercise. During President Obama’s visit to Beijing in November 2014, the two sides signed the mechanism of notification of major military activities and the code of safe conduct for maritime and air encounters. General Fan will no doubt try and build strategic trust, manage the South China Sea crisis and help reduce the chances of miscalculation and accidents involving the two militaries.

Washington’s concerns

The American objectives are also fairly clear. The US would not like China to expand its activities in the South China Sea area by ‘building sovereignty.’ What worries the US is the ‘pace and scope’ of Chinese island building activities and the fact that these might be utilized later for military purposes. What the US would ideally like is a ‘freeze’ on all such Chinese activism and a return to the status quo. By making public the flight of the P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft over Chinese-held islands with a CNN reporter on board, and by making strident comments, sometimes at the level of the US Defence Secretary, Washington hopes to achieve two main objectives. First, to impress its allies in the region about the seriousness of its intent and thereby keep them firmly within the US security orbit; and second, to deter the Chinese to the point that they opt for the status quo. Additionally, if the countries of South-East Asia are sufficiently perturbed over perceived Chinese aggressiveness, they might opt for importing sophisticated US military equipment. It would be interesting to watch the rise of US arms sales to the region from here on.

The Chinese, aware of the US military bluff, have nevertheless opted to take a conciliatory route. To ease US concerns, China took a number of public steps. First, it pledged not to ‘threaten’ the freedom of navigation and flights over the South China Sea. Second, the Chinese have said they will provide public service facilities such as weather forecasting and maritime rescue etc. for the region from its reclaimed islands. The Chinese have offered the US and other countries, as well as international organizations, the use of these new facilities, so as to advance cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). And as the former Chinese Ambassador to the US, Zhou Wenzhong put it recently, “China’s actions are not targeted at the US and its allies, or designed to weaken US supremacy or the regional order.’

China’s strategic objective is to establish the principle that ultimately, all important issues relating to the Asia-Pacific and particularly the South China Sea should be settled bilaterally by the US and China alone. If this is the major outcome of the Xi-Obama summit in September this year, the Chinese would be well pleased. It would also be a vindication of President Xi’s new style policies.

R.S. Kalha is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.