Asia Event Takeaways Geopolitics

PS21 Report: Managing Tensions in Asia

While conflict in the South China Sea is unlikely in the near future, tensions will remain high as China becomes an increasingly dominant force in those waters.

President of China Xi Jinping meets with Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte.
President of China Xi Jinping meets with Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte.

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  • Despite rising tensions in South China Sea, conflict is unlikely
  • But having a presence there allows China to project military power and enhance its claim to sovereignty
  • Rest of region is wary of Beijing’s activity but reluctant to jeopardize relationships with China
  • Domestic concerns and economic conditions may cause China to back down, but not a guarantee

On August 6, 2015, Project for the Study of the 21st Century held a discussion on regional tensions and avoiding conflict in Asia.

Please feel free to quote from the report below citing PS21. Contact PS21Central@gmail.com if you wish to reach any of the participants.

Chair: Milena Rodban: independent geopolitical risk consultant

Harry Kazianis: Executive Editor, The National Interest. Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Center for the National Interest.

Scott Cheney-Peters: Chairman, Centre for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

Shannon Tiezzi: Managing Editor, The Diplomat.

While conflict in the South China Sea is unlikely in the near future, tensions will remain high as China becomes an increasingly dominant force in those waters.

Kazianis: Do I think that there is going to be some sort of conflict or war between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea? No, not really. Do I think that there will be conflict between some of the major parties like, say, China and the Philippines, or China and Vietnam? No, but there probably will be skirmishes. There probably will be tensions. I think that’s pretty clear. I think, as you sort of watch the progression of events in the South China Sea, it’s very clear that within the next five years, if trend lines continue the way they are, China will be the de facto master of the South China Sea.

As China continues to make gains in the South China Sea, Beijing’s behavior will become ever more confrontational.

Cheney-Peters: If China has de facto control of the South China Sea or wants to start exerting that control, there is a lot of things it can do that are much more aggressive. Fisheries enforcement as it starts to get that capability. We just had a South China Sea war game with the think tank that I help run and one of the more interesting ideas that come out of that was if China wants to also then subvert instead of just force all of the other foreign nationals and their fishing vessels and keep them away from exploitation, it could subvert that instead and say, “You are welcome to fish here, but you need to have license by us and it’s free so here you go.”

China’s activity in the South China Sea will enhance its capacity to project military power and provide the muscle needed to back Beijing’s claims to sovereignty in the region.

Tiezzi: China is using their fishermen’s presence to sort of establish that they have a presence here and that they send their coastguard ships to back that up. So the Chinese I’m sure would say that’s not military, but when you have a standoff like the Scarborough Shoal, it sure seems from the Philippines point of view like a military threat is being brought to bear.

Kazianis: China is building deep harbors, helipads, barracks, and lookout posts on all these different islands. This allows to them to not only to project military power, but to create the conditions of sovereignty over that 9-dash line. Now…the last couple days, I’ve checked in on my friends in Beijing. Some of them are retired PLA. I won’t get into branches or specifics, but in their opinion, this is not government policy but their own personal opinion, is that by 2018, China will have the capability to at least declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea. Now, it is very to declare it than it is to actually implement it. So, from what people have told me, again retired PLA officials, is that sometime by 2025, they would then the capability to actually enforce it.

Tensions in the South China Sea have evidenced clear contradictions between Beijing’s behavior and its stated policy goals. Such discrepancies may actually have a positive effect on China’s approach, potentially pushing the PRC towards greater cooperation.

Tiezzi: I think China was hoping that it could use the maritime Silk Road as its carrot to get the other countries to accept was it was doing in the security realm. That hasn’t happened. These countries are more concerned about China’s actions than Beijing was hoping. You’re seeing more movement towards the beginnings of unity, where ASEAN begins to say, “No. We really do need a code of conduct. We need some guidelines for this.”

There is a little bit of tension between the military / strategic side and the more diplomacy-minded foreign policy side. We’re starting to see a little bit of pushback from the foreign policy wonks in China who are saying, “You are jeopardizing your own major foreign policy initiative. The maritime Silk Road is not getting anywhere because of these tensions. We need to reevaluate our approach to the South China Sea.”

Kazianis: I think it is very natural for China, being the second largest economic power on the planet in terms of GDP, to want to start to offer some sort of public goods…But, I think at the same time, a lot of these different measures are looked at through the prism of all these different confrontational problems, whether we’re talking about the South China Sea, whether we’re talking about the East China Sea, whether we’re talking about China’s military buildup or its anti-access, area denial, or all these things that we talk about.

Deteriorating economic conditions may alter China’s attitude towards the South China Sea; domestic concerns may override Beijing’s desire to project its influence externally, rather than prompt an exacerbation of tensions.

Tiezzi: There is the theory of economic trauma — that global leaders like to stir up nationalism to take people’s minds off it. I’m more of the theory that as China’s economic and domestic situation gets worse, they are going to want a more stable external environment. We’re probably not going to see a major olive branch immediately, but they might just say, “Okay. We’re not going to focus on the South China Sea right now. We need to get our economic house in order.” That’s always going to be their priority number one.

On the other hand, a worsening internal situation does not guarantee a change in the course of China’s behavior.

Kazianis: What if China keeps meddling through? What happens if they make changes around the edges in terms of their economic policy and don’t make a tremendous push towards domestic consumption…? What if they just decide to muddle through? For me…I think their foreign policy decisions will muddle through. I think they will use in different formats and domains to sort of let the population have some victories and say, “Ah ha! We are doing something in the South China Sea and the East China Sea,” and let some of that domestic steam get boiled over a little bit.

Interpretations of international law often vary widely amongst the different stakeholders.

Tiezzi: The U.S. is interested in seeing international law upheld. They’re very concerned that China, by insisting on international plus historical rights, is putting those two on equal par which means international law can be subverted when you feel that you have a historical claim to the region.

While the DPP candidate has promised to uphold the constitution which is code for uphold the One-China policy and the ROCs territorial claims, there has been talk of rethinking the 9 dash line, or the 10 dash line from Taiwan’s point of view, to make it in accordance with international law because, I think, Taiwan is more willing to admit than Beijing is that it is not currently in accordance with international law.

Cheney-Peters: The Philippines took a case to the permanent court of arbitration at The Hague… They’re now analyzing it and they’re expected to rule first on the jurisdiction: whether they have the ability to rule on the merits of the case. It’s kind of a dual track approach that they’re taking. What I’ve heard at least is that they’re at least likely to rule in favor that they have jurisdiction and are also likely to take the Philippines case which is not that the Philippines have sovereignty necessarily to a bunch of these islands, but that China’s 9-dash line is not a valid construct within the international law community.

Many of China’s neighbors are hesitant to confront Beijing’s aggression, especially due to a strong dependence on economic relations with China.

Cheney-Peters: Singapore and Malaysia…are claimants, but they are likely to be not as confrontational as some of the other claimant states. Those often try to make sure that their relationship with China is not endangered by tensions in the South China Sea.

ASEAN, as an organization, can play a role, but it’s mostly been a very minimal role as of late, in part because you have other countries within ASEAN such a Laos and Cambodia, who are seen as aligned with the Chinese point of view and aren’t claimant states so they really prioritize their relationship with China.

Kazianis: Keep in mind, China is the biggest trading partner with basically all the countries around it. That ties these countries to China. At the same time, with all these different security problems, a lot of these countries are very concerned about if they start joining all these different Chinese-backed organizations, does that lock them into some sort of Chinese-led order in the long term?

Other countries in the region are more wary of Beijing’s initiatives in the South China Sea, and have been more vocal about their concerns. Several states have turned to joint initiatives as a response to the growing threat of a more assertive China.

Tiezzi: I think Japan has similar concerns as does India. They both also have this attention and rivalry with China in general, but they are concerned about issues closer to home. India is concerned about what China is doing in the Indian Ocean. Japan is obviously concerned about the East China Sea. They project those fears onto the South China Sea and they see this as a way where they can work together as an international community to teach China where the limits are.

Despite recent militarization of the region, an arms race in the South China Sea is not inevitable.

Kazianis: Is it an arms race? Are these countries arming missile for missile, gun for gun, ship for ship? No. because they can’t compete with China, I mean Japan maybe but that would be sort of tough at this point. I think what we’re really facing is a security dilemma. It’s a classic security dilemma.

Tiezzi: You’re definitely seeing these countries scrambling to not match China, but find ways to deter China. The Philippines is partnering with the U.S. and Japan to try and bulk up its military capabilities. Vietnam is getting submarines from Russia, now potentially looking at getting military supplies from the U.S. as well. And I think a lot of these countries are seeing now how militarily powerful China has grown and they’re starting to see what China might be willing to do in the South China Sea and they’re concerned. So they’re bulking up their own militaries. I don’t know if anyone thinks that conflict is inevitable. But when you have all of these countries equipping their militaries it certainly makes possible skirmishes, confrontations, possibly a repeat of the incident where you have a collision between the surveillance planes and the fighter jets.

Extra-regional actors, including the United States, advocate “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Intentions for doing so are not purely commercial, but are also mindful of the military advantages of maintaining the freedom of the seas.

Cheney-Peters: “Freedom of navigation” is…not usually the literal navigation of commercial vessels going through. It tends more to be about what are the rights of military vessels. That’s typically what is actually at stake. That being said, in the event of a conflict, it certainly helps if you have your military and your bases a lot closer to where the commercial navigation traffic could go through. So, even though it’s not necessarily that navigation, in the event of a conflict that could lead to something. The extra-regional power’s interests mostly lie with making sure they have that commercial traffic, freedom of navigation, that aspect. But what’s typically at stake has more to do with the military activities in the region.

Washington may draw from a number of policy approaches to hold China accountable for its actions.

Kazianis: I think the first thing you need to do, for any administration, is you have to show up. And I think a lot of our allies and partners, they’re very aware when we miss an East Asia summit or an important meeting.

The second thing you do, in combination to this, is you have to really button down and strengthen our alliances. That means working as much as possible with Japan, the Philippines, almost a de facto ally in Vietnam, working with India as much as possible, I think we have to work a lot closer with Australia.

If those things don’t work, there is one last card you can play. It’s a little dangerous, it’s a little risky, but when we think about China and the discussions we have about China, there’s two conversations: the security conversation and there’s the economic conversation. And the economic conversation is, by and large, very positive: $570 billion bilateral trade relationship with China, both countries by and large have gotten very rich. Specifically China has gotten very rich. Then we have the security situation which is not very good… Maybe it’s time these conversations become a little more closely linked.

Cheney-Peters: I do think that there could be greater use of and following through on establishing a maritime domain awareness, architecturally. And a lot of people like Patrick Crohn at CNS talk about casting position strategies, showing “okay, here’s an actual cost that is going to be imposed upon you for militarizing or taking these actions.” And not necessarily a linkage, because I’m not sure that a linkage is necessarily a good thing that the U.S. should do in terms of tying it into other issues, another economic realm or cyber-security realm, just because that could be something that China then reverts to as well. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword but I think that the U.S. has a lot of things that it could do that it hasn’t yet done.

Whatever the incoming administration, policy towards China is not altogether decided, especially because campaign rhetoric does not often match reality.

Kazianis: I haven’t heard a lot of Asia-talk out of the candidates… But I think it’s safe to say, I think all their rhetoric, once it comes out, will be a lot tougher on China, what actually happened when they go to the Oval Office in 2017 is a very different question. I think we can all agree that the rhetoric is different when that person has to get in that chair and start making all those life or death decisions. So I think the jury is still out.

Tiezzi: When [the candidates] talk about China, they’re not talking about China, they’re talking about America. Our economy is going down, we’re losing all global influence, our military is getting weaker relative to the rest of the world. I’m not convinced any of these candidates really understand the factors that are at play, particularly in the South China Sea or with the US-China relationship, with the obvious exception of Hillary Clinton since she served as Secretary of State and dealt with this on a daily basis.

The United States is not pursuing an explicit policy of containment towards China, but should be careful not to aggravate Beijing by constricting China’s growth in an effort to maximize Washington’s own influence in the region.

Tiezzi: For obvious reasons, the U.S. right now has more power than China, has more influence, they don’t want to give that up. And so that is a fundamental tension in the relationship. And I think that the Chinese have valid concerns there about how the U.S. is saying “we welcome your rise,” but then they’re not supporting China having a greater role in the IMF and these other financial institutions. I don’t like the word containment, but there is a fundamental problem there.

Cheney-Peters: The U.S. could take a greater effort in highlighting the cases where the non-Chinese claimant states are doing things that it disagrees with. Where non-Chinese claimant states are maybe making excessive claims or otherwise taking provocative action. But that could be buoyed so that the U.S. could show that we’re trying to be even handed.

Report by Amanda Blair. Transcript by Claire Connellan and Christopher Stephens.

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