MS Risk Blog

Has the South China Sea become a Flash point for conflict?

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The South China Sea is developing into a perfect storm for potential conflict as an unwitting host of competing claims and counterclaims of ownership – involving China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia – heightens the risk of a miscalculation, and military conflict. Couple that with America’s foreign policy of naval patrols and air reconnaissance missions in the disputed area, under the freedom of Navigation principle. As China and America play-out their rivalry and tensions in multiple arenas, amid the backdrop of China’s South-East Asian neighbours, wary of Beijing’s increasing assertion of its geo-political, military, economic, and diplomatic heft, there is little doubt that the South China Sea is a metaphor that brings it all to the boil.

Analysts have noted that in the grip of a global pandemic, China has sought to establish a dominant position in the area. In the last few months, Beijing has announced plans to carry out military drills in August that simulate the capture of the Dongsha Islands – which Taiwan currently controls. The New York Times also reports of allegations that China’s Coast Guard Vessel “rammed and sank” a Vietnamese fishing boat. Beijing has been accused of “stalking” a Malaysian oil vessel in waters belonging to Malaysia. The Philippines lodged a formal diplomatic compliant of a warship, purportedly Chinese, said to be pointing its radar system at a Philippine Naval Vessel. There have been reports of Chinese fishing boats turning-up in the Natuna Islands. This is an area that is internationally recognised as being part of Indonesia’s economic exclusive zone, but Chinese trawlers, backed by Chinese Coastal guard units, chase-out Indonesian fishers. The Chinese Foreign ministry sees the matter differently:

“Whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters,” is the official rejoinder.

Maps produced by China lay claim to large swathes of the South China Sea through its self-styled “Nine-Dash line”. An International Tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines in its disputes over the Spratly Islands. The Arbitration Tribunal established that China’s “Nine-Dash Line” interpretation has no legality in international law. Beijing rejected the Tribunal’s ruling. That begs the question: of what significance are these waters?  The South China Sea holds a strategic allure: first, as a vital shipping lane for global trade. It is estimated that one-third of global trade flows through these waters. The South China Sea is also reported to be rich in natural resources, including petroleum and gas, which crystalizes the geo-political tussle over its ownership.

“I think it’s fair to say we’re on the front line,” said Evan A. Laksmana, a senior researcher and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “If China feels it needs to provide some retribution of some kind, if we are seen as escalating, Southeast Asia would be looked at first.” There have been calls for ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia to beef up its military security in the face of not only China’s claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, but its building of military bases and research stations on artificial reefs.

There is no doubt China holds considerable clout in South East Asia. Indonesia calls China its biggest trading partner. Philippines, under the leadership of Rodrigo Duterte has made the pivot from America to the embrace of China to benefit from its investments, trade, and further potential economic ties. The consequence of accommodating a Chinese economic hegemony, or call it the stick and carrot approach is what Professor Alexander Vuving of Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu means when he says:  “The Chinese want to create a new normal in the South China Sea, where they are in charge, and to do that they’ve become more and more aggressive.”

America under President Trump has held a more hawkish China policy than recent US administrations and that has led to clashes over trade, telecoms giant Huwawei, Covid-19, and the security status of Hong Kong. The upshot is South East Asian countries, and China will be competing for strategic control of the South China Sea. For America, Beijing’s disputes with its neighbours offers the perfect context – for lack of a better description: to duke-out what many analysts have predicted will be the defining rivalry of the 21st century. It is quite ironic that there is scarcely any acceptable mechanism for arbitration to this geo-political powder keg involving naked display of might and ambition of a rising power, and a perfect excuse for intervention by an established one. I guess this script has déjà vu written all over it.