South China Sea disputes: The gloves are off

Southeast China Sea disputes have entered a dangerous stage, as China steps up its territorial claims.

Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have found themselves squeezed between two superpowers, the US and China, writes Heydarian [AFP]

As the United States and the European Union struggle to find a diplomatic resolution to the Ukrainian crisis, with Russia accused of de facto annexing Ukraine’s south-eastern region of Crimea, many in Asia are increasingly worried about a similar flashpoint in the South China Sea.

The West’s initial prevarications on standing up to Russia – specifically on imposing punitive sanctions against Moscow’s policy in Crimea – has set off alarm bells among some US allies in Asia, which are currently locked in a bitter territorial conflict with China . In the Philippines, for instance, many are wondering whether the West will come to the country’s rescue if an armed conflict with China erupts in the South China Sea.

No wonder, during a recent foreign affairs committee hearing in the Philippine Congress, I noticed many participants anxiously discussing the Western response to Russia’s perceived aggression against Ukraine. Across Southeast Asia, there is palpable curiosity over the extent to which Washington and other Western powers are willing to come to the aid of Ukraine amid Moscow’s push to consolidate its sphere of influence in the Black Sea.

For sure, the Chinese leadership is also closely following the Ukrainian crisis in an attempt to anticipate possible responses to its own territorial manoeuvring in the Western Pacific, which have come under heavy criticism by Washington.

The Chinese leadership is also closely following the Ukrainian crisis in an attempt to anticipate possible responses to its own territorial manoeuvring in the Western Pacific, which have come under heavy criticism by Washington.

While Russia’s resurgence, under President Vladimir Putin, has become a major source of concern among many European countries, the rapid emergence of China as an East Asian powerhouse, in turn, has rattled many Asian neighbours. Accustomed to an American-centric order in the Pacific theatre since the end of World War II, some Asian countries have welcomed a greater US strategic footprint in the region to constrain Beijing’s perceived territorial expansionism. Thus, leaders in Tokyo, Manila, and Hanoi have largely celebrated the Obama administration’s so-called “Pivot to Asia” (P2A) policy.

Quite similar to Ukraine, Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have found themselves squeezed between two superpowers, the US and China. With Beijing asserting its “historical” claims to a significant portion of the South China Sea – akin to Russia’s expressed commitment to retain its influence in post-Soviet territories such as Crimea – Manila and Hanoi are staking their hopes in the US’ wherewithal to push back against China.

Unquiet waters

While it is true that the South China Sea disputes have been a permanent feature of regional affairs for some decades, recent years have been particularly disconcerting. Since 2009, China has stepped up its para-military patrols in the area, with growing reports of Chinese surveillance vessels “harassing”, among others, Filipino as well as Vietnamese ships and fishermen.

In mid-2012 , the Philippines and China came dangerously close to an armed conflict over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Equipped with superior military hardware, and backed by intensive diplomatic pressure, China  eventually managed to outmanoeuvre the Philippines by effectively gaining control of the disputed shoal. By mid-2013, China pushed the envelope even further , with Chinese para-military vessels allegedly aiming to overrun Philippine military fortifications in the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, which is eerily close to the hydrocarbon-rich areas off the coast of the Philippine province of Palawan.

The balance of forces on the ground has rapidly shifted in China’s favour. Thanks to its relatively resilient economy, China has effortlessly accelerated its military spending, with a greater focus on its naval capabilities. The ultimate aim, many analysts claim, is to make China a pre-eminent naval power in Asia – eventually, challenging the US naval hegemony in the Pacific theatre.

In response, Southeast Asian states have accelerated their efforts at establishing a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, hoping to dissuade China from reinforcing its para-military fortifications and surveillance patrols across the contested areas. There have also been parallel efforts by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore to increase American military presence in Southeast Asia to hedge against China’s territorial assertiveness.

China announces military spending increase

Burned bridges

But far from united on the issue, many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been reluctant to openly criticise China over the South China Sea disputes. As the ASEAN’s largest trading partner, and Asia’s biggest economy, China has astutely leveraged its economic prowess vis-a-vis many Southeast Asian states.

As a result, the ASEAN has failed to establish an effective and coherent policy on the South China Sea disputes. The negotiations over a CoC have largely stalled, forcing the Philippines and Vietnam to (a) seek greater strategic assistance from the US and Japan and (b) more directly confront China on the territorial disputes.

The Philippines has tried to reinforce its claims in the South China Sea by going so far as renaming the contested maritime area as the West Philippine Sea. It has also sought to legally challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea by filing an arbitration case with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). The Philippines hopes that other Asian countries, which are locked in similar disputes with China, will follow suit. 

Above all, Manila has been negotiating a new defense pact with Washington. The goal is to deter further Chinese para-military manoeuvres in the South China Sea by allowing the US to establish a semi-permanent military presence and lease advanced military hardware to the Philippines.

China’s diplomatic siege

China has responded by effectively placing the Philippines under a diplomatic siege: In contrast to almost all East Asian countries, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is yet to conduct a formal, bilateral dialogue with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping. In addition to recent maritime regulations, which impose restrictions on the entry of foreign fishing vessels into Chinese-claimed maritime territories, there are growing reports  that Beijing is also planning to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

The combined effect of these (existing and proposed) measures, according to critics, would be China’s de facto control over a large portion of the South China Sea.

Against such gloomy backdrop, Aquino, in a recent interview with the New York Times, went so far as risking permanent diplomatic estrangement with Beijing by likening China to Nazi Germany . Naturally, Aquino’s statements infuriated China, which dismissed him as an ” amateurish ” politician that is incapable of negotiating a peaceful compromise. But with top American officials directly criticising China’s territorial claims and promising to come to Manila’s rescue in the event of conflict in the South China Sea, the Filipino leadership is relatively upbeat ahead of the US President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Manila, which is expected to coincide with the signing of new bilateral strategic-military agreements.

Nevertheless, given the growing concerns over the impact of America’s dwindling military budget on its forward posturing in Asia, and Western prevarications on punishing Russia’s actions in Ukraine in recent days, many Filipinos are increasingly worried about China’s next move in the South China Sea. Diplomacy, meanwhile, seems to have taken the backseat.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist on Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings”