Is the South China Sea a new ‘Dangerous Ground’ for US-China rivalry?

Author: Chengxin Pan, Deakin University

On British imperial navigational charts, much of the area now commonly known as the South China Sea was called ‘Dangerous Ground’, its small islands, rocks, reefs and low-tide elevations once seen as mere navigational hazards, best avoided.

Now boasting some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, this region — dubbed by some as ‘a new Persian Gulf’ and ‘a hydrocarbons Eldorado’ — is a focal point of ongoing sovereignty disputes among its adjacent countries. This vast sea may have shaken off its ‘Dangerous Ground’ reputation in a navigational sense, but it seems to be shaping up as precisely that strategically: a volatile flashpoint characterised by recurring tensions with profound geopolitical implications.

Such tensions are visible in recent flare-ups between China and the Philippines over the latter’s oil exploration in disputed waters, as well as in Taiwan’s recent move, for the first time since 2000, to strengthen the defence capability of its coastguard troops stationed in the Spratly Islands. All this came after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last July that the US had a ‘national interest’ in the South China Sea issue, followed by US-Vietnam naval exercises in the Sea one month later. This new stance from Washington marked not only the internationalisation of the South China Sea disputes, but also the opening of a potential new front in US-China rivalry. The Philippines’ more assertive moves in the Spratly Islands earlier this year cannot be divorced from this great power dynamic. Without some measure of US support, the Philippines would have been less likely to offend China, a country that has just overtaken the US as its second largest trading partner.

That Washington has stepped in has created much alarm and trepidation within China. A quick glance at the Chinese press reveals the widespread sentiment warning against foreign intervention in the South China Sea. Immediately following Clinton’s remarks, an editorial from Global Times (a subsidiary of the official People’s Daily) asserted that ‘China’s long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand … [and] China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.’

To some degree, Beijing has itself to blame for this new turn. For a long time it insisted on a bilateral approach to the South China Sea issue. Southeast Asian countries — with direct stakes in the disputes and fearing being outgunned by their powerful neighbour — understandably want to hedge their bets by looking to the US for support. But that is not the only factor. China and other claimants have adopted the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the region and vowed to follow the formula of ‘shelving disagreement and joint development’, but thus far little progress has been made with these multilateral initiatives. Underlying the intractability of this problem are some more structural dilemmas faced by China and the US as well as other stakeholders in the region.

For its part, China needs to constantly reassure its southern neighbours of its ‘peaceful rise’ intention; the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area was designed in part for this purpose through ‘win-win’ economic cooperation. But, on the other hand, securing control in the South China Sea is China’s best hope to become a great naval power — a goal which has become increasingly crucial in protecting its expanding economic and security interests. Eighty per cent of China’s energy imports pass through the South China Sea, and Beijing has agonised over its so-called ‘Malacca Dilemma’ — a term referring to the busy Malacca Strait: at one end of which is an American naval presence at the Changi naval base in Singapore and, at the other end, a US fleet (operating from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean). Yet, few countries appreciate this strategic vulnerability, and most are all too ready to view any Chinese ascendancy in the region with suspicion.

Meanwhile, the US faces its so-called ‘China Dilemma’. While it needs Beijing to take more responsibility in jointly tackling common challenges — like nuclear non-proliferation, terrorism, climate change and global economic stability — Washington is fundamentally wary of China’s strategic intentions. Unsettled by China’s ‘charm offensive’ and the waning American influence in East Asia over the years, the Obama administration has made re-engaging Asia one of its foreign policy priorities. To that end, the South China Sea seems to be a perfect stepping stone.

Whether by accident or design, these great power dilemmas have now converged on the South China Sea. This is of course not to predict a full-scale Cold War-style rivalry between the US and China. Unprecedented economic and strategic interdependence between the two will militate against such a trend. Moreover, the fear of further US involvement might well spur Beijing to recalibrate its approach to the South China Sea issue. Just last December China hosted a three-day meeting with ASEAN member states in Kunming to hammer out a more binding code of conduct in the region. Still, the apparently increasing commercial, strategic and symbolic value of the South China Sea to each of its claimants makes a lasting solution unlikely any time soon, and the structural dilemmas seem to run deep on both sides of the Pacific, with countries in the region, including Australia, potentially caught in the middle. Last month, US Pacific Commander Adm. Robert Willard told Congress that US access to the South China Sea might require increased levels of US military activities in Australia. Given the enormously high stakes, more far-sighted leadership and more creative thinking and diplomacy are urgently needed in order to prevent this ‘Dangerous Ground’ from sliding into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dr Chengxin Pan is a Lecturer in International Relations at the School of International and Political Studies, Deakin University.

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