It has now been nearly three months since the potentially game-changing arbitral panel ruling against China’s claims to maritime space in the South China Sea. Has the “game” changed and if so, how?
Despite dire warnings from many chicken-little-like analysts, the sky did not fall — at least not yet. China has not produced the predicted worst-case scenario reactions to the decision. Nevertheless, the decision has set in motion political and military adjustments throughout the region. But none of them contribute fundamentally to the resolution of the conflicting claims or to the contest between the US and China. Indeed, if anything the ruling has exacerbated their contest for dominance in the region. As aptly put by Australian analyst Hugh White:
“It is important to be clear what the issues are. They are not about the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea, or even about the broader principles of international maritime law. Those issues are simply being used, by both sides, in a much deeper contest over the future of the Asian regional order and their respective roles in it. The contest is simple and stark: America wants to remain the leading strategic power in Asia, and China wants to replace it. The stakes are therefore very high — especially in Beijing’s view, for China.”
Nevertheless, there have been some tentative potential positives. China and the US agreed to finalize a US Coast Guard-China Coast Guard rules of behavior MOU as soon as possible. China and ASEAN agreed to adopt a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) (for navies only) and in principle to set up a hotline to manage maritime emergencies. But the CUES agreement was not fundamentally new nor a major step towards a Code of Conduct (COC). China and ASEAN also agreed to finalize a “framework” for a COC by the “middle of next year.”
However, China has continued to make its military presence felt in the region. Its airforce announced “regular” exercises over the Bashi Strait and into the Western Pacific. The exercises will focus on “flying over island chains, controlling the East China Sea and cruising the South China Sea.” It also undertook joint naval drills with Russia in the South China Sea practicing defense, rescue, anti-submarine and “island seizing” operations. The latter included island-landing and island defense and offense exercises.
Moreover, China warned Japan to “exercise caution in its words and deeds” regarding the South China Sea. It signaled Australia to physically stay out of the dispute and not to provide increased use of military facilities to the US lest it become a potential “target.” And it warned Singapore, ASEAN’s designated co-ordinator for dialogue with China to stay out of the South China Sea disputes.
Despite China’s warning, Japan’s new Defense Minister Tonomi Inada announced in Washington that its Self-Defense Force would undertake training cruises with the US Navy in the South China Sea. This prompted a US Navy statement welcoming Japan’s expanded maritime activities there as well as a scathing response from China’s media.
With Cambodia’s support, China also successfully opposed the mention of the decision in statements issued by international meetings such as the G-20 summit in Hangzhou and the East ASEAN Summit meeting in Vientiane. This effort was successful despite the raising of the issue by US President Barack Obama at the Summit. In response to his doing so, China’s Premier Li Keqiang underscored China’s willingness to work with ASEAN countries to “dispel interference” in the region by outside powers.
China’s approach seems to be to ignore the arbitration outcome while trying to defuse tensions bilaterally with the Philippines and Vietnam and multilaterally with ASEAN. It is also intent on blocking US involvement in the matter while continuing some assertive activities short of crossing “red lines.”
As usual the US de facto ally Taiwan was unhelpful, essentially acting as a surrogate for China in this matter. Its former President Ma Ying-jeou and its current President Tsai Ing-wen severely criticized the arbitral panel’s ruling about Taiping Island. Tsai sent a minister to Taiping to underscore Taiwan’s claim that the feature is a legal island. Worse, she also dispatched a frigate to “defend Taiwan’s national interests.” It was revealed that Taiwan had built towers on Taiping that could be used to launch surface to air missile or for some other military purpose. The key word here is “could,” one which US’ China bashers use frequently vis-à-vis China’s installations. But in this case, criticism by the US government and analysts was muted.
Meanwhile, the Philippines continued its contradictory and confusing statements. On September 2, its President Rodrigo Duterte declared that he would insist that the arbitration decision be the basis for talks. He said he would argue “Look I have this arbitral judgment. We will not go outside the four corners of this paper.” On September 15, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay stated that “We cannot proceed on engaging China in bilateral talks where China says that we can only talk outside of the framework of the arbitral tribunal’s decision.”
The struggle for dominance between China and the US has had effects on countries caught in the middle.
Then, on September 18, Yasay announced in Washington that the Philippines is making arrangements for bilateral talks with China without any preconditions. Soon after it was announced that a delegation of retired ambassadors, military officials, businessmen and academics had begun a Track Two dialogue on the issues with their Chinese counterparts. This left the US and Japan in the uncomfortable position of being more publicly supportive of the arbitration decision than the country that brought the action. It was also announced that Duterte will go to China to negotiate the issues in mid-October.
It soon became apparent that US involvement in the issue was not fully welcomed by Duterte. He said that he was canceling joint patrols of the South China Sea with the US Navy. His concern was that this would appear “aggressive” to China and harm bilateral negotiations. To Washington’s chagrin he stated that “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.” However, Duterte subsequently acknowledged that the Philippines needed American troops in the region and agreed to joint military exercises in early October.
Duterte also accused China of beginning reclamation and construction on Scarborough Shoal which would be a violation of a political “red line.” This claim was denied by China. He added that if there is a conflict, “it will be bloody.” He then called on China to allow Filipino fishermen to fish near Scarborough Shoal. Meanwhile an assorted group of environmental activists tried to get the International Union for the Conversation of Nature to support a proposal for a marine peace park in the Spratlys. But it was rejected, some alleged that it was due to China’s intervention.
The US has continued to press its regional involvement particularly regarding the South China Sea issues. It apparently felt the need to reassure its friends, allies and potential enemies, i.e., China, that its pivot and staying power are “for real.” Indeed, it stepped up its military exercises and assistance to friends and allies apparently in response to China’s actions. According to Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, “On the arbitration ruling, we have been encouraging individual countries to make statements in support of the ruling.” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that China was pursuing “militarization” in the South China Sea, and that the US military should conduct more air and sea operations to deter Beijing’s actions. Pressure from US militarists to resume freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) continued to mount. Most significantly, the US called for a meeting of ASEAN Defense Chiefs in Hawaii to discuss ways to address maritime security and terrorism in the region.
The struggle for dominance between China and the US has had effects on countries caught in the middle. Australia has vacillated regarding its response to China’s actions in the South China Sea as well as its position and policy in support of the US. Much to the chagrin of the US government, the Assistant Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army put Australia on the spot by publicly asking it to choose between Washington and Beijing. Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull offered to host an ASEAN summit in 2018 to “help maintain peace and stability in the region,” probably in part to try to figure out what Australia should do. Meanwhile, Australia was called out by Timor-Leste as a hypocrite in supporting the arbitration ruling against China but avoiding arbitration regarding its maritime boundary with Timor-Leste.
Indonesia, which has tried to appear neutral, began to assert its rights vis-à-vis encroachment by Chinese fishermen in its exlcusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands. It also began to discuss with the U. military aid to beef up its presence in these islands.
Vietnam has continued to antagonize China. India offered it a credit line of 500 million dollars for defense co-operation and Japan agreed to help it upgrade its maritime security capabilities. It also moved mobile rocket launchers to five of its installations in the Spratlys. It also seemed poised to use the arbitration decision to claim traditional fishing rights in the territorial seas of the Paracel Islands and to argue that China cannot claim an EEZ from these features.
On the other hand, based on the decision, Vietnam may be illegally occupying low tide elevation features in the EEZs claimed by the Philippines and Malaysia. New Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made an initial visit to China and agreed to resolve differences with China through negotiations. Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the common interests of China and Vietnam far outweigh their differences and called for their dispute in the South China Sea to be resolved through talks. However, in the short term, a breakthrough is unlikely.
What happens next depends on a variety of interrelated variables. These include if and how Beijing decides to moderate its behavior; what carrots and sticks the US offers; and what the Philippines offers China in return for moderating its behavior. Ultimately, this could turn into a long term China-US test of wills, interspersed with bluffs and even risk taking — with the Southeast Asian countries watching from the side lines and some caught in the middle.