The South China Sea issue is currently one of the most evident aspects of the growing polarization between the world’s two major economies, China and the United States. Even though this question involves primarily actors from Northeast and Southeast Asia (hereafter East Asia), which includes ASEAN and its member-States, it still should not be forgotten that at the end of the day, China and the US still are the main decision-makers in the region, given their power-projection capabilities. Peace, or war for that matter, depends on the position of these Great Powers. The region has a systemic value because the US-led network of alliances is being challenged by an ongoing military and economic Chinese ascent.
The Southeast Asian countries are participants in a fragmented productive system in the region. This system has been historically led by Japanese investments. However, it is today facing a trend of increased Chinese presence, in industry, trade, and direct investments – more so with the Belt and Road Initiative. The faltering of the US leadership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership has strengthened this movement. This is a result of fundamentally different perspectives and interests in the region: while for China the local sea routes can be considered essential for its survival, for the US, it is “only” a way of both controlling Chinese behavior and positioning itself as a trustworthy hegemon.
Chinese Stakes and Strategy
The South China Sea connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and as such, it connects the main producers of oil in the Middle East and Africa to the industrialized economies of Northeast Asia. It also provides the main lanes of intermediary goods trade within East Asia. These sea-lanes are also used by China as one of its main possibilities of naval power projection. Estimates of 2017 put a total of 40% of Chinese international trade passing by the region, and 22% of the total trade of East Asia. For the US, it only represents 6%. The Malacca strait is its most famous chokepoint, through which 80% of oil imported by the Chinese passes by . A blockade in Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits would imply the necessity of circumnavigating Australia, which would have an impact over the cost of transportation and, most importantly, would increase the insurance price for the tankers, as well as interrupting the regional productive network.
Through a vast process of economic modernization and industrialization prompted by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, Chinese GDP grew by an average of ten percent from 1980 to 2010, maintaining an average of over seven percent in subsequent years. To support this profile, China needs to meet its energy demand, dependent on oil imported through the Malacca Strait. Thus, Chinese interests in the South China Sea are primarily energetic, which implies two initiatives: expanding its military presence in the region and strengthening political and economic interdependence between China and the Southeast Asian countries. It is noted that the importance of either initiative has varied over the years: in the early 2000s, China employed a regional foreign policy known as “Charm Offensive”, following the principles of safeguarding peace, promoting the development and broadening cooperation . According to Shambaugh , most nations in the region saw China as a good neighbor then and a non-threatening regional power.
The current assertive stance, employing skirmishes between fishing boats and coast guards, with the establishment and expansion of military bases at points that were once small rocks, constitutes a change in China’s insertion in the region. Nevertheless, China maintained the same strategic interest in the region: safeguarding its interests by having political force in its strategic surroundings, securing its supply and trade routes and preparing against possible assertive initiatives by the United States and its allies. China is gaining influence over Southeast Asian countries. It has maintained its partnership with China-aligned countries in the Region (Laos and Cambodia), maintained diplomatic channels with countries seeking a neutral profile in the region (such as Indonesia and Singapore), and has gradually been able to increase its influence over countries that directly challenge Chinese territorial claims (Philippines and Vietnam, besides becoming the main foreign investor in Thailand). The region is central to the Belt and Road Initiative Belt. While the United States withdrew from negotiations for the establishment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiations for the ASEAN-centered RCEP with Chinese participation remain open.
One of the high points of the previous Chinese cooperative stance was the Declaration on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Nonetheless, its main promise – the future signing of a Code of Conduct that would prevent the parties from resolving its territorial issues violently – evolved slowly, and indeed China has prevented its resolution. The change of attitude is logical if we analyze what was and is now at stake concerning the evolution of Chinese military modernization, both about the projection of maritime force and the strategic use of long-range nuclear weapons. The Chinese perception of the United States’ capacity for dialogue and its role in regional alliances also changed during this period.
From a strategic-nuclear standpoint, the main change was the process that led to the establishment of nuclear deterrence patrols of its new ballistic missile submarines, commissioned in 2007 and operating since 2010. The nuclear submarine armed with ballistic missiles is the main system for second-strike capability within the nuclear triad – meaning they are the ultimate dissuasion weapon. These submarines operate from Hainan Island in south China. This regional deployment is explained by the fact that on its east and north coasts, China is surrounded by US bases and its allies’ naval forces in Taiwan, the southern islands of the Japanese archipelago and South Korea. It becomes central to China’s ability to prevent detection of its nuclear submarines to fortify its position in the South China Sea. Besides, Japan and South Korea’s acquisition of ballistic missile interception capabilities starting in 2009 (through the AEGIS system), which although officially used as a defense against the North Korean nuclear program, also threatens Chinese dissuasory capability of a second-strike nuclear attack using land-based missile launchers.
From a military modernization standpoint, China started to invest heavily in its naval forces after they were shown to be thoroughly insufficient during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996). Naval reform, as well as its growing economy, enabled China to become the world’s greatest shipbuilder. This enabled China to become more assertive both regarding Japan, concerning the Diaoyu/Senkaku, and the SCS, occupying Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
American Stakes and Strategy
As stated above, the US’ stakes in terms of commerce are relatively minimal when compared to China’s. Still, American stakes in the region are directly connected to its global strategy. Contemporary US strategic interests in the SCS can be explored by analyzing two key moments: the 2011 Asian pivot, and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategic Report. Both have the same foundation: that the US network of allies in East Asia is one of the main pillars for their international hegemony.
The 2011 Asian pivot meant that the US would refocus to the Pacific instead of the Middle East. The US had boosted its alliance with Australia through the establishment of a military presence in Darwin, through agreements with India and Vietnam, and the use of anti-missile systems in Japan. The economic basis of this initiative would be the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US sought to strengthen its position as guarantor of regional security and by ensuring the possibility of intervention in defense of allies. A major threat to US hegemony is China’s acquisition of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities, challenging the US capacity of unrestricted access to the region. The concept evolved gradually from AirSea Battle in 2010 to the 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), and finally to the Joint Commons Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC) . Unrestricted access would mean the ability to attack the rearguard of the enemy’s defensive lines. However, by destroying the enemy’s (China’s) ability to command and control, it would also threaten the ability to coordinate a nuclear second-strike, and thus threatening credible nuclear deterrence. The Chinese response to the new US doctrine was the enactment of the Active Defense strategy in 2015, outlining a more assertive military stance.
Even if it is not as important to the US, the region has critical importance to their allies South Korea and Japan. About 90% of the oil imported by Japan and South Korea goes through the region, and both have the third and second-largest trade flows in the local straits, respectively . This is could be considered the basis of the US interest in proposing itself as the advocate of Global Commons.
Current US strategic interests for the region are presented in the US Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of 2019 . Even though it is based on the Obama administration’s pivot, it has the differential of accusing China of being a strategic competitor and revisionist power. It follows the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which mention that the main threats for US interests abroad include competition between major powers (Russia and China) and conventional military threats (in other words, refocusing away from counter-insurgency). Contrary to the AirSea Battle concept, which focuses on the unique ability of the United States to employ combined forces (enabled by technological advancement), recent documents emphasize that such a factor will only be decisive if used at sufficient scale. The 2019 document concedes that conflict scenarios close to competitors are dangerous because in these cases the enemy would have a local military advantage at the start of a possibly short confrontation. To fight this, the active participation of their allies, committed to a joint confrontation of the revisionist power, is essential. The US would act differently depending on how close it is to countries in the region: Allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia, Philippines, Thailand), Strong Partners (Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, Mongolia), New Indian Ocean Partnerships (India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal), new partnerships in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia), dialogue partners (lowest level of engagement with Brunei, Laos and Cambodia). Thus, the US seeks above all to maintain a balance of power that gives credibility to its posture of guarantor of its allies and thus to maintain its hegemonic position.
Will there be a major war anytime soon?
Not likely. Indeed, the importance of the South China Sea straits – especially for mainland China, Japan, and South Korea – means that an embargo or blockade could threaten the entire productive system of the region. Although both Japan and China have strategic oil reserves in the event of shortages (100 and 40 to 50 days respectively ), the degree of productive interconnection means that any embargo can cause complete chain paralysis and consequently global shortages of certain industrialized products. Even threat perception can have increasing effects on the price and viability of production by increasing the price of vessel insurance. A prolonged interruption of maritime communication lines would threaten the survival of the State and thus lead to open conflict. Just as the United States realize the seriousness of imposing an embargo on China, Beijing understands that the sinking of an American aircraft carrier would require a US military response that could lead to total war. Besides, the SCS does not have the same symbolic importance for China as Taiwan has, for instance.
Will the US passively allow China to gradually surpass its economic and military power in the region? Also unlikely, but it does not mean that the SCS will be the theater of a major engagement. However, recent experience has shown that small naval encounters could lead to stalemates, which might bring winners and losers as one of the sides might have to concede to the adversary’s will. These stalemates could lead to limited skirmishes, which would contribute to the credibility of either Chinese or American military efficiency. Right now, the balance-of-power is shifting towards China. One of the key variables to assess future developments could be the possibility of change in Japanese and Indian initiatives. Even though they are giving signs that they are willing to play a bigger role in the region, as of now it still would not be enough to counter growing Chinese clout over the former American-led sphere-of-influence in Southeast Asia.
This article was written by Rômulo Barizon Pitt, a postgraduate student at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, while working as a fellow researcher at Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies (CESASS).
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash