Rise of China and the birth of conflicts in South and East China Seas

July 8, 2021 | 04:12 pm PT
Carl Thayer Southeast Asia regional specialist
China has risen as a major economic and military power on global stage and with it many disputes particularly in South China Sea and East China Sea have also intensified.

China has announced its arrival by escalating territorial disputes with neighboring smaller states and has laid claims of sovereignty over numerous features in East China and South China Sea. The disputes have intensified over the period of time and with every passing day it is becoming evident that the conflict is a matter of when not if.

The disputes are a major threat to peace in South China Sea. China has been using the tactics of deploying maritime militia disguised as fishermen to fuel the ongoing territorial disputes. Both sovereignty disputes and disputes over sovereign jurisdiction (over maritime zones and resources) are equally dangerous and have potential of leading the subcontinent towards the dreadful and bloody war. Sovereignty disputes can only be settled by the agreement of parties to the dispute. Article 33 on the Charter of the United Nations states, "The parties to any dispute... shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice." Disputes over sovereign jurisdiction can be settled directly by the parties concerned or by international arbitration that is mutually agreeable. State parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) can make a claim to have their case resolved by binding (compulsory) dispute settlement.

These disputes in reality cannot be settled in the near foreseeable future partly because of the power imbalance and partly because the parties claim indisputable sovereignty over the features. Public opinion in these countries is also rallied for the support of indisputable sovereignty. The factor of the power imbalance however can be overcome by what international relations specialists call "self-help," i.e. building up and modernizing their armed forces for self-defense and to deter an adversary. National units can also ally with other states to share the burden of protecting national sovereignty. Current disputes in the South China Sea could be managed through a legally binding and enforceable Code of Conduct ratified by all states in dispute or through a balance of power in which a coalition of like-minded states bands together to maintain the peace. The coalition will bring to the table the required human capital investment and enhanced military capability.

A Chinese Coast Guard patrol ship (L) is seen near an unidentified vessel at the South China Sea, in a handout photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard April 15 and taken according to the source either on April 13 or 14, 2021. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters.

A Chinese Coast Guard patrol ship (L) is seen near an unidentified vessel at the South China Sea, in a handout photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard April 15 and taken according to the source either on April 13 or 14, 2021. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters.

The major powers like Japan with itself being a stakeholder can play a significant role in arriving at a realizable solution to disputes. Japan currently administers the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea over which China asserts a claim to sovereignty. Japan’s strategic interests are to maintain a peaceful regional security environment, especially on the Korean peninsula where North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Japan’s strategic interests include maintain a robust alliance with the United States in order to protect freedom of navigation and overflight, lawful commerce, and Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku. Japan is also a treaty ally of the United States which has declared that the treaty covers the Senkaku Islands. Japan has chosen to develop modern self-defense forces and a coast guard to secure its interests. Japan has the ability to use its Coast Guard to push back against repeated Chinese incursions around the Senkaku islands. The strategic interests of Japan in South China and East China Sea should be the driving force for building a coalition of like-minded states. Over time Japanese leaders have re-interpreted Article 9 of the Constitution so that Japan can gradually play a greater role in contributing to regional security. Japan thus contributes to building up the maritime capacities of the Philippines and Vietnam.

Japan has a stake in defending its sovereignty and maintaining alliance with the U.S. Japan’s stake is existential, in order to preserve its sovereignty and prevent its subordination to China it must build up sufficient self-defense forces to deter China while securing ironclad U.S. guarantees to come to Japan’s assistance if it is menaced by China.

China’s stake is to overcome the century of humiliation of the colonial era and become the hegemonic power in East Asia by disrupting the network of U.S. alliances and getting the U.S. to retreat from the area. This urge of becoming the hegemonic power has led to undue confrontation with the other states like Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia occupy land features (rocks) in the South China Sea. They have a stake in the preservation of international law and the status quo so they can exploit and develop the marine resources in their Exclusive Economic Zones. Brunei is transitioning its economy and China has stepped in to invest in Brunei to assist this transition. Brunei’s economic well-being and autonomy are at stake. Brunei thus joins Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in stressing the importance of ASEAN centrality and dialogue as the means of managing relations with China. The possibility of armed conflict between China and its neighbors is low because China pursues a strategy of using "gray zone tactics" i.e. intimidation and bullying by its Coast Guard, maritime militia and fishing fleet that falls below the threshold of armed force. However, China’s use of lawfare has entered an uncertain period with the promulgation of its Law on the China Coast Guard authorizing the use of armed force and destruction of facilities constructed by claimant states in specified circumstances. An outbreak of armed conflict would be short in duration and China would prevail due to its preponderance of force. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have all adopted a low military posture to mitigate the likelihood of armed conflict. All of these countries welcome a U.S. presence but none want to be forced to pick sides.

There is growing consensus among government and strategic analysts that the prospect of war between China and the United States is increasing. The Australian Department of Defense, 2020 Defense Strategic Update issued in July 2020, assessed that "Major power competition, coercion and military modernization are increasing the potential for and consequences of miscalculation. While still unlikely, the prospect of high-intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific, is less remote than at the time of the 2016 Defense White Paper, including high-intensity conflict between the United States and China."

China has so militarized its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea that if conflict suddenly broke out with the United States, any U.S. Navy warship in the South China Sea, including a floating expeditionary base ship like the recently commissioned USS Miquel Keith, would be at risk. In order to counter the growing power imbalance and to subvert the chances of potential conflict in South China Sea, the coalition strong enough of all like-minded nations is the need of the hour.

*Carl Thayer is Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales and a Southeast Asia regional specialist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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