•      Mon Apr 22 2024

The South China Sea Could Boil Over

– Brahma Chellaney

HANOI, MARCH 20 (PS) – For over a decade now, China has been working stealthily to alter the territorial and maritime status quo in the Indo-Pacific – an effort that has increasingly stoked tensions with regional neighbors like Australia, India, Japan, Taiwan, and several Southeast Asian countries, as well as the United States. And with US attention and resources focused on conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, China has lately become even more aggressive in its expansionism. Chinese regional hegemony is closer than ever.

Almost daily, China finds a new way to bully Taiwan, which Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly pledged to “reunify” with the mainland (though that objective has no basis in international law or history). As China takes steps like encroaching on Taiwan’s air-defense zone and encircling the island with warships, it raises the risk of a war that would transform global geopolitics.

There are war clouds also gathering over the Himalayas, where a military standoff triggered by China’s repeated furtive encroachments on India’s borderlands has dragged on for nearly four years. And in the East China Sea, China’s intrusions into the territorial waters and airspace of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its own, are fueling Japan’s drive toward rearmament.

But the biggest risks of escalation may well lie in the South China Sea, where China’s aggressive efforts to entrench its dominance have regularly led to dangerous near-confrontations, including with US warships and aircraft. For years, China has been working relentlessly to cement its dominance over the South China Sea and exploit that region’s vast resources and strategic position as a critical corridor through which one-third of global shipping passes.

To this end, China has constructed artificial islands atop remote reefs and atolls and transformed them into forward military bases. Though these activities constitute a blatant violation of international law, including a 2016 ruling by an arbitral tribunal at The Hague that invalidated Chinese claims in the South China Sea, there has been little pushback from three successive US administrations. As a result, China has managed to expand its maritime borders unilaterally without firing a single shot.

Now, China’s navy and air force routinely patrol its neighbors’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and its coast guard – the world’s largest and most militarized – has conducted “intrusive patrols” of others’ offshore oil and gas fields. Chinese coast-guard vessels, including megaships, wantonly employ “non-lethal” weapons like high-pressure water cannons and long-range acoustic devices.

Moreover, China has been sending its navy and coast guard to shadow, hound, and harass vessels belonging to the US, as well as to smaller neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, with territorial claims in the area. Even fishing boats have been targeted and destroyed. With Chinese ships now being deliberately designed for “ramming” and “shouldering” other vessels, it seems clear that China will become more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims – and the associated fishing and energy-exploration rights – in the South China Sea.

China’s militarization of the South China Sea poses the greatest threat to the Philippines and Vietnam. But whereas Vietnam pursues an independent foreign policy, which its prime minister calls a historical imperative, the Philippines is a longstanding US ally, with a mutual defense treaty in place since 1951.

And yet, when it comes to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, the US has largely left the Philippines to fend for itself. In 2012, when China occupied the Scarborough Shoal, a traditional Philippine fishing ground located within the country’s EEZ, US President Barack Obama’s administration stayed silent. Since then, China has steadily eroded the Philippines’ control of other areas within its EEZ, but the US has offered its ally little beyond statements of support.

This is unlikely to change any time soon. With the wars in Ukraine and Gaza stretching American military resources thin, a direct confrontation with China is the last thing the US needs. But refusing to stand up to China may well make a clash more likely – and more destructive.

Already, the US has allowed China to gain such a strong footing in the South China Sea that restoring the status quo of just a decade ago would be all but impossible without a full-scale war. And, as the recent increase in provocations in the South China Sea indicate, Xi is bolder than ever, despite the rising risk of escalation, accidental or otherwise. In the meantime, America’s failure to rein in China’s aggressive expansionism is undermining its own security and trade interests.

US President Joe Biden insists that the US wants “competition with China, not conflict.” But China wants strategic dominance – beginning with the South China Sea – and it is willing to risk conflict to get it. The South China Sea has become a test of American resolve, which Xi is expecting Biden to fail. The world, especially the countries on the front lines of Chinese expansionism, can only hope that Xi is wrong, and that the US finds ways to rein in China without armed conflict.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor Emeritus of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.