Amreeta Priyadarshini Das
What started off as a regional dispute over territory has escalated to the status of a crisis in a few short years. At the heart of the dispute are the overlapping claims of ownership of various land features and ensuing exclusive economic control of the adjoining waters in the South China Sea (SCS) with contesting claims coming from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia. The ‘crisis’ however mainly involves, China, the Philippines and Vietnam, with competing claims in the Paracel and Spratly islands. China’s claims encompass almost the entirety of the South China Sea. Although the U.S. is not a claimant, it is a key player in the matter.
South China Sea is of critical importance to the U.S. because of the Asia-Pacific’s economic and strategic importance to its national interests. Strategically, SCS is important to U.S. because its presence in the region is essential to prevent a Chinese regional hegemony. Economically, SCS is extremely important as a third of the total maritime traffic worldwide passes though the region, and it is hub for crude oil and fishing. Providing support to its ally, the Philippines, provides a good rationale for U.S. presence in the region, but, China’s gradual enhancement of control over the disputed areas may signal steps along a continuum resulting in ejection of U.S. from the region, which will severely weaken its position in Asia-Pacific. Another key reason for its presence in the region is as a preventive measure; it is uncomfortable with the idea of China as a regional hegemon. Therefore, the SCS issue has always been considered as a serious threat to its interests, but with the Trump administration’s rhetoric on the issue of SCS, the prospect of direct military confrontation with China is a very real possibility.
China sought to increase its footprint in SCS by building artificial islands and increasing militarization in the disputed waters. In 2013, Philippines internationalised the issue by taking China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration over territorial rights in the Spratly islands, over which China claims sovereign authority, based on historical rights and the nine-dashed line from the Ming dynasty. In 2016, the PCA ruled against China and sided with Philippines but China refused to recognise or accept the decision of the arbitration, only resulting in increasing conflict.
The question to ask now is, with increasing great power rivalry in the region: is an all-out war imminent?
All the parties involved have taken an effort to increase their capabilities to defend their claims to the territory. Trump has proposed a $52 billion hike in defence budget and it is only logical to assume that some of this is going to be used in increasing naval capabilities in Asia-Pacific, given his past stance on increasing naval fleets. Over the years, China has been taking considerable steps towards modernization of its military and increasing its maritime paramilitary and naval forces; recently it has also proposed an increase its defence budget by about 7 percent, with large allocation to the navy which is crucial to safeguard its “sovereignty and interests and rights”.
If a zero-sum, aggressive approach is taken by the US with increasing militarization, it is expected that the situation will only worsen with growing hostility. The problem here is of equivalent retaliation from China, in which case an armed engagement between the two nations would be impending. That being said, victory for either side would ultimately be outweighed by the collateral damage caused by an all-out war. This makes the likelihood of war less likely. A more pragmatic approach would be to limit militarization by all parties, with greater focus on bilateral negotiations among the claimants.
However, if the US doesn’t respond to Chinese militarization in hopes of maintaining the status quo, the credibility of US commitments to provide security to its allies would come under fire.
Issues surrounding sovereignty carry with them nationalist sentiments, which makes negotiations harder and compromising on sovereign territory shows weakness, which has made bilateral discussions difficult to materialise.
But with the Philippines President Duterte, who has been quite vocal in expressing his aversion towards US-Philippines military alliances, and who doesn’t care much about defending territorial integrity, new opportunities for discussion and informal cooperation with China have opened up – China providing funding for three large infrastructure projects in Philippines, Duterte’s reaction, or a lack thereof, on China building a monitoring station in Scarborough Shoal, China allowing the return of Filipino fishermen. Moreover, with US withdrawal from the TPP, Philippines is cooperating with China for the Chinese-led regional free trade agreement, RCEP. With the Philippines cosying up to China, and turning away from US (at least in military alliances), in the long run could mean that, the disputed territories could officially become the sovereign territory of China in a few years, which would heavily undermine US position in Asia-Pacific as China could essentially block off US military in the western-pacific region.
For a critical issue like SCS with multiple parties involved, ‘resolution’ is near impossible, which is why this is a crisis without an end. But if the focus is on ‘management’ or ‘containment’, it is possible that better dialogue among the claimants will help in preventing escalation.