South China Sea is a no longer an area where only China’s claim of sovereignty, reclaiming of islands and construction of military facilities dominate the headlines around the world. The low scale confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels or Chinese and Filipino vessels once in a while also periodically make the news. But now waters of the South China Sea have begun to witness the naval presence of powerful countries, such as the United States, Japan, France, and Britain. German navy may join sooner than later and sail in the waters of the South China Sea.
The principal reason why major powers are increasingly showing interest in this region is consistently expanding Chinese control over the islands of the South China Sea. First, China declared an imaginary nine-dash line encompassing about 90 percent of waters and asserted that it has sovereign control over the area. Second, it began to construct artificial islands by use of sands and stones so that it could claim sovereignty over the territorial waters surrounding the islands. Third, it then began to construct military facilities in those artificial islands contrary to its promise and to the surprise of the international community. Fourth, it sought to prevent the fishermen from neighboring countries to operate in the waters it claimed sovereignty over. Fifth, it prevented through coercive means oil exploration in areas where Vietnam claimed sovereignty. Sixth, when the Philippines went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and won the case against Chinese claims of sovereignty, Beijing promptly declared it “null and void” and refused to abide by the rulings. Seventh, China has expanded the size of its coast guard and has built hundreds of fishing boats that together can swarm a foreign vessel and harass. Eighth, China has engaged the US naval ships in a game of chicken that has the potential to spark conflict at short notice.
ASEAN’s efforts to conclude an agreement with China on a set of Code of Conduct is unlikely to undo the expansion of Chinese presence in the South China Sea. The Freedom of Navigation and Over Flight operations by the US Navy has been unable to roll back the newly built Chinese military facilities in the South China Sea. While Britain and France have also done so, China has shown no inclination to budge. Passage of the Japanese helicopter carrier has had no effect on China.
The Trump Administration has been seeking to put additional pressure on China to contain the spread of Chinese control in the South China Sea. President Trump has ordered the navy to make the freedom of navigation operations within the territorial waters around artificial islands claimed by China more frequent. He has offered Taiwan more than 2 billion dollars worth of F-35 fighter aircraft on the face of usual Chinese protests. He is seeking to strengthen the bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral relationship in the region.
Japan is fully on board with the US on the South China Sea, as it has its own problems with China in the East China Sea. The Japanese legislature has already authorized the executive to go for “collective defense” and participate in “foreign conflicts” if required for self-defense. Japan also has been holding military exercises with regional navies, and more recently it sailed its Helicopter Carrier in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. South Korea likewise has announced a Southern Sea policy that endorses Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The US and Australia regularly hold bilateral naval exercises. The trilateral strategy of the US includes JIA or Japan-India-America triangular consultations. And there are two quadrilaterals involving India, Japan, Australia, and the United States and France-Japan-Australia and the United States.
There is little doubt that India, Australia, Japan, France, Britain, and the United States are on the same page as far as sovereignty issues in the South China Sea are concerned. All support the ideas of freedom of navigation and over flights, peaceful resolution of disputes, non-militarization of islands by regional countries, and uninterrupted flow of trade and commerce by keeping the sea lanes safe and secured. None of them supports the Chinese policy in the South China Sea. The waterways that carry more than 5 trillion dollars of global trade annually cannot be left to claims and counterclaims of sovereignty by regional states. And thus major powers have begun to take small steps in order to protect their interests in the South China Sea.
There is a growing fear that China has been trying to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese Lake. But China has its own narrative. It has been trying to convince many regional countries that it wants to promote inclusive growth. It’s Belt and Road initiative is unprecedented in scale, capital, and the number of countries to be in it. While it has developed some cracks, a large number of countries do not view China as a threat and rather consider China as an opportunity. Most American security partners and allies have found in China a robust trade partner and a good source of foreign investment. The US has been unable to compete with China in financial and economic diplomacy. President Donald Trump’s policies and views have made America look like an unreliable ally, and this has made China more attractive.
China, in addition, has consistently increased its defense, security, and economic relations with Russia. Although at a smaller scale, Russia too has sent its navy to the South China Sea. Stress and strains US-Russia relations have made it imperative for Moscow and Beijing to build a strategic partnership. Moreover, China has much better ties with two more nuclear powers in the Indo-Pacific—Pakistan and North Korea.
Significantly, Australia is currently debating the potential role of nuclear weapons for its defense. It’s all because of the uncertainty surrounding Sino-US confrontations. China is Australia’s economic partner, and the US is an alliance partner. But President Trump’s policies have induced Australia to search for security where reliance on the US could be reduced or eliminated. Unless the Trump Administration alters its policies, Washington’s allies, such as Japan and South Korea may also turn to develop nuclear arsenals.
The Big Power presence in the South China Sea makes it a dangerous flashpoint. The Cold War time trust among alliance partners are missing in the present scenario, and thus it is difficult to say which country will partner with whom and to what extent in coming years. A major war is unlikely as it could escalate to dangerous proportions, yet minor or mini-conflicts could also spell disasters for peace, security and developments in the Indo-Pacific region.