South China Sea: Backyard Bully

China escalates maritime tensions once again in the South China Sea

Melissa Cyrill Delhi

Chinese moves regarding the South China Sea have brought it back into direct confrontation with its regional neighbours. Triggering the latest bout of tensions has been China’s reclamation campaign on Scarborough Shoal, a shallow body of water located between Macclesfield Bank and  Filipino Luzon Island. Both China and the Philippines lay claim to the shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China), located a little more than 100 miles from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.

The Chinese plan to set up an outpost on the shoal a few weeks earlier led to the Philippines approaching the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. The PCA’s judgment is expected on July 7 but will most likely be dismissed by China. Moreover, Beijing seems to be balancing its unilateral incursions with diplomatic overtures to gain international support ahead of the PCA’s ruling.The Chinese government recently alluded to more than 40 countries supporting its position, the latest being Sierra Leone and Kenya. In typical grandstanding, China also asked the newly-elected Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, (through intermediary Indonesia) to focus on improving bilateral relations instead of on the maritime dispute.

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In fact, the Chinese mindset on its role and authority in the South China Sea was on full display during the Shangri-La Dialogue (Asia’s largest security summit) that was held in early June. “We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble,” said Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, who led the Chinese delegation at the summit. It has also been reported that China, in effect, seeks to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea region that would require civilian aircraft to identify themselves to military controllers in the area.

China and several ASEAN states (Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia) have, since the 1970s, made repeated and overlapping claims on the Paracels and Spratlys island chains in the South China Sea as well as its dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs. While obscure in size and largely uninhabited, these territorial and ocean areas have been said to hold untold reserves of mineral wealth. Interestingly, this estimate is backed with little exploration but, rather, estimates from neighbouring areas. Regardless, the South China Sea serves as the most critical shipping route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and China aspires to be the undisputed power in this region. To put this in perspective – more than $5 trillion in trade flows through the 3.5 million-sq-km waterway each year, which is one-third of all global maritime commerce. Moreover, the Strait of Malacca, the choke point linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans at the southern end of the South China Sea, handles four times as much oil as the Suez Canal.

Naturally, to counter the Chinese build-up in the strategic maritime space has been part of the American pivot towards Asia. Unveiled at the start of the second Obama term, the policy posturing has meant increasing US military patrols and exercises in the South China Sea along with pledges to ensure freedom of navigation and flight. Illustrating this, US electronic attack warplanes landed at Clark Air Base on June 16 in tacit cooperation with the Philippines, post the Scarborough Shoal incident.

 

 

The US has also routinely defended its patrol of littoral combat ships, jet fighters, and surveillance planes near Chinese-held islands, with more or less support from ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines, and Japan.

China, on the other hand, considers the growing US presence in the maritime region provocative, targetting its sovereignty and security interests. It has nevertheless done little to deter China’s unilateral actions – recently a Chinese nuclear submarine entered Japan’s 12 nautical miles territorial sea near Sakishima Islands, in Okinawa prefecture. This was the first time since 2004 (and only the second time in history) that a Chinese warship entered Japanese territorial sea in the East China Sea. On its part, Japan has upped its security relations with major powers, working towards alliances with like-minded countries in the region, the Philippines and Vietnam.

 

While obscure in size and largely uninhabited, these territorial and ocean areas have been said to hold untold reserves of mineral wealth. Interestingly, this estimate is backed with little exploration but, rather, estimates from neighbouring areas

 

Both China and Japan are the economic engines of the region. Yet, 20 years of foreign and Western investments reaping benefits in China’s ‘open’ economy (peddling low production costs, cheap labour, tax incentives and a huge market) has increased the stakes towards disrupting the region’s Sino-dependency. In more ways than one, China still wields enormous control over ASEAN’s economic and foreign policy decision-making. It is also never averse to coercing (for instance, through military build-up or naval movements) cooperation. Strategically, China has also preferred dealing with each claimant to the regional maritime dispute on a bilateral case-by-case basis.

Lastly, a final indication of the region’s asymmetric relations with China was the recent near-immediate retraction of a tersely worded ASEAN communiqué. On June 14, after meeting their Chinese counterpart in southwest China, the foreign ministers of the ASEAN states pointed out the body’s “serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea”.  Also, while China wasn’t outrightly blamed, the communiqué contained the following line: “We also cannot ignore what is happening in the South China Sea as it is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.”

What happened next was a case of ‘it was there and then it wasn’t’. Less than three hours after the ASEAN statement was released by the Malaysian Foreign Ministry, a spokesperson retracted the document, saying that “urgent amendments” were needed. By late evening, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made his own statement refuting the contention that the South China Sea dispute was an obstacle between China and the regional body. No new statement has since been issued.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2016