Saturday, May 28, 2016

The South China Sea – An Asian Flashpoint? Ed Woolgar. Foreign Affairs Review

29 May 2016

The South China Sea – An Asian Flashpoint?

U.S. Pacific Fleet

One hundred and twenty nautical miles from the coast of the Philippines lies a thorn for the newly developing Chinese naval beast. It is a three hundred foot, seventy-year-old former tank ship of the United States Navy. She now serves as an outpost for the Philippine Marine Corps and is manned by eleven starving marines, at the fate of slick Chinese naval cutters who prevent her from being aquatically resupplied. The situation in the South China Sea is not formed or defined by elusiveness; this has become a major region of serious political gesturing and acts of sheer desperation that only seem to have been increasing in number over the course of recent months. Ma Ying-jeou, the ex-Taiwanese president, provided one of the bluntest of these moments in mid-January by visiting Itu Aba (Taiping in Chinese), the largest island of the Spratly archipelago which the Taiwanese currently occupy. The visit unsurprisingly brought condemnation from China, the Philippines and Vietnam -all claimants of the territory- and also the United States, who described the trip as ‘extremely unhelpful.’[i] The situation arguably provides the most imminent threat of escalation in the region for the upcoming year.

U.S. Pacific Fleet

Image courtesy of U.S. Pacific Fleet, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Prior to examining the specific volatility of conflict in the South China Sea, an assessment of the shift in war dynamics is also required. Conflicts of the 20thcentury as well as economic and demographic focuses lay firmly on Europe’s footsteps, but since then the axis has shifted far across Europe to the Far East. The geographical impact of this West to East shift should not be understated. China’s ‘land borders are more secure than at any time since the height of the Qing dynasty at the 18th century’[ii] and as a result, China has pressed on with a naval expansion unseen in peacetime maritime Asian history. Archipelagos themselves are not a draw for conflict, despite evidence from conflicts in both the Falklands and The Hanish Islands. Rather, in this specific case, it does change the dynamics through which conflicts can emerge in areas of archipelagos in which patterns of political brinkmanship have emerged. Early European 20th century conflict was a moral struggle both against Germany and then Russia. The post-9/11 foreign policy engagements have been entangled with a human as well as a military battle, a case of a conflict of hearts and minds alongside conflict in the traditional sense. In the case of the South China Sea, we now see a vastly different dynamic. Such a conflict presents a break from the 20th and 21st century pattern of civilian interaction with conflict. Naval and aerial engagements which would likely play out in the South China Sea make this conflict a more clinical affair than conflicts more recently seen. Joint naval and aerial conflicts tend to be cleaner in their impact on civilian life within the states that engage in the conflict.   This is, aside from the specific draws of the South China Sea, a major incentive for states seeking to benefit economically from these archipelagos. Unwittingly, such showmanship comes with escalating tensions and the potential for further flashpoint intensification and emergence into conflict.

Aside from the influence of the shift from West to East, the specific context that surrounds the South China Sea makes the chance for conflict only more severe. The first element to examine is China’s newly assertive naval forces. As a Congressional report noted in 2015, ‘Observers of Chinese and U.S. military forces view China’s improving naval capabilities as posing a potential challenge in the Western Pacific to the U.S. Navy’s ability to achieve and maintain control of blue-water ocean areas in wartime.’ [iii] China has not only built its first carrier, but also acquired anti-ship missiles as well as an entirely new command and control naval system, signifying a rising confidence and desire to challenge the United States’ hegemonic control and free-roam ability throughout much of the Western Pacific. The fleet of the Chinese navy is not expanding defensively; recent attainments include the Luyang II (Type 052C) Class Destroyer, Jiangkai II (Type 054A) Class Frigate, Houbei (Type 022) Class Fast Attack Craft and major investments into a large offshore floating naval base all tell of this. [iv]

Unsurprisingly, the major contenders for the islands have been following a similar pattern of naval rearmament. Southeast Asia is consumed in an arms race as the majority of European defense budgets are winding down – that trend is starting to reverse. Arms imports to ‘Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have gone up 84 per cent, 146 per cent, and 722 per cent, respectively, since 2000. The spending is on naval and air platforms: surface warships, submarines with advanced missile systems, and long-range fighter jets. Vietnam recently spent $2 billion on six state-of-the-art Kilo-class Russian submarines and $1 billion on Russian fighter jets. Malaysia just opened a submarine base on Borneo.’ [v] Further patterns of rearmament are evident even as far back as 2010, ‘Thailand has received the first of 96 Ukrainian armored personnel carriers ($125 million), with the first of six Swedish fighter jets and two other aircraft ($574 million) arriving in early 2011.’ [vi] The trend in Southern Asia is evident; states are rearming and falling into patterns in which major brinkmanship becomes common practice, a reestablishment of the trends seen throughout the seventies and eighties. It was during these decades that conflict broke out twice, with the loss of 150 personnel from both Vietnam and the Philippines. Aside from the volatility in this kind of environment and the specific instability of this region, there are viable scenarios that add to the combustible nature of the South China Sea over the coming months.

By all accounts, such an escalation is seen to most likely occur through an intensification in military operations. The Council on Foreign Relations has written extensively on these scenarios and sees this type of clash as fairly likely to occur. The United States currently views such restrictions placed by China on its maritime operations as illegal, arguing that it contradicts the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. China demands that any operations taking place within its EEZ (Economic Exclusion Zone) require pre-permission and has regularly intercepted American reconnaissance flights. As the article notes, China ‘periodically does so in aggressive ways that increase the risk of an accident similar to the April 2001 collision of a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet.’ [vii] The likelihood of such an incident is not decreasing, given that these aggressive interceptions are now also occurring at sea and the ‘growth of Chinese submarines have also increase[d] the danger of an incident, such as when a Chinese submarine collided with a US destroyer’s towed sonar array in June 2009.’ [viii] The likelihood of such incidents are only increasing given the aforementioned armament trend and the increased United States naval presence in the area, most recently having sailed the USS Curtis Wilbur twelve nautical miles of Triton Island on 30 January. 

In addition to this possible escalation, there is a likelihood of military intensification through a China-Philippines conflict. A 1951 treaty obliges the United States to come to the Philippines defense in the event of an attack on her territory. Certainly an expectation exists within the Philippines to this degree, ‘In mid-June 2011, a Filipino presidential spokesperson stated that in the event of armed conflict with China, Manila expected the United States would come to its aid.’ [ix] It is not untold that once the situation plays out in the South China Sea, whether through conflict or negotiation, China will reassert her sights on interests further South and continue with Asian salami tactics, [x] we are likely to see a further boost in Chinese commercial fisheries as her interests expand further .[xi]

In The South China Sea, we have in play the first potential major military confrontation between the world’s two superpowers. China and America have long contested economically and through introverted cyber conflict but it is here that we witness confrontation on a new scale. China’s speed of change is breathtaking; she has stunned commentators with her ability and ambition to challenge the United States in the Eastern Pacific. Conflict here is not inevitable, but there is little in the reality of the situation that gives great hope to those seeking a peaceful solution. China’s ambitions lie far beyond the South China Sea and her weaponry is testament to ambitions ‘beyond the Philippines, and southern Japan – to the second island chain… to Palau, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.’ [xii]As long as China seeks to challenge the United States through these incendiary islands, there is certainly little chance of smooth seas

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