South China Sea tensions unlikely to lead to war

Author: Barry Desker, RSIS

Recent naval manoeuvres and land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands have drawn attention to the risk of incidents at sea leading to growing tensions and even conflict in the South China Sea. On Tuesday 27 October 2015, the United States Navy sent its state-of-the-art guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen into waters within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, which China claims.Chinese naval vessels shadowed the USS Lassen until it left the waters around Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

A handout photo released by the US Navy dated 25 May 2015 of the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen conducting a trilateral naval exercise with the Turkish and South Korean Navy in support of theatre security operations in waters to the south of the Korean Peninsula. The destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago, one of the areas where Beijing has allegedly been building artificial islands, on 27 October 2015. (Photo: AAP)

China’s extensive land reclamation in the South China Sea has been viewed as provocative. China has built a helipad, wharfs, a weather observation station and a four-storey building on Subi Reef after extensive land reclamation. China also appears to be reclaiming land for the building of a runway estimated to be 3,300 metres long and capable of meeting military requirements.

The possibility that a combat-capable runway is being built, as well as other similar facilities elsewhere in the region, has raised concerns that China could enforce an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, as it has done over contested waters in the East China Sea.

The US move was an attempt to assert freedom of navigation in the contested South China Sea — an important waterway that carries almost 30 per cent of global trade, including nearly 60 per cent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 per cent of China’s crude oil imports. The US navy has reiterated that it will continue with such patrols.

China’s response was immediate but low-key. The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the United States had acted in defiance of repeated Chinese objections and had threatened China’s sovereignty and security. Chinese public opinion has also been critical, highlighting the risk that growing nationalist sentiments could reduce the Chinese government’s freedom of action in future.

For Southeast Asia’s littoral states, the US and Chinese positions draw attention to the increased risk of conflict in the South China Sea. There is also the possibility that regional claimant states could miscalculate and take stronger action to pursue their claims in the belief that they would have the support of the United States.

China’s strategy of creeping de facto control over the South China Sea has resulted in growing resistance from the Philippines and Vietnam in particular. They have moved closer to the US, which is seen as the only power capable of balancing China. Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has encouraged rising defence expenditures, especially on the navy and air force. This trend can also be seen in other regional states such as Indonesia.

Still, as major powers, the United States and China will focus on the management of their differences. The two countries have already held a video conference. And, although China emphasised that there is a risk of ‘a minor incident that sparks war’, both sides agreed to maintain the dialogue and to follow agreed protocols to prevent clashes. Scheduled port visits by US and Chinese ships and planned visits to China by senior US Navy officers remain on track.

Self-interest means China and the United States are unlikely to miscalculate and rush into war. It would be difficult to convince a weary American public to embark on another major overseas conflict. And China’s leadership has an interest in avoiding war so that it can continue to focus on economic development.

Despite some assertions otherwise, a rising China does not mean that there is a considerable risk of war as China challenges the dominance of the United States. An increasingly confident China has also recently promoted economic policies designed to strengthen its ties to Southeast Asia, such as its ‘One Belt, One Road’ polices to establish a Maritime Silk Road linking East Asia to the Middle East.

Still, China’s security strategy run the risk of alienating regional opinion and has made it easier for competitors, such as the United States and Japan, to reinforce their ties with states in the region. The exceptions to this are states bordering China, like Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Despite the resistance in the region, Southeast Asian states should expect a more assertive China in the years ahead.

As China rises, Chinese policymakers recognise that the only power with the capacity to threaten Chinese interests is the United States and its web of alliance relationships. This has resulted in a Chinese re-balancing with a tilt eastwards towards the Pacific.

In the decade ahead, there will be a strengthening of Chinese air and sea defence capabilities and a growing emphasis on building closer economic and political ties with the littoral states on the Maritime Silk Road. But, as the United States will remain a Pacific power, effective management of the US–China relationship into the future will be the critical issue for maintaining global peace and security.

Barry Desker is Distinguished Fellow and Bakrie Professor of Southeast Asia Policy, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Earlier versions of this article first appeared here in The Straits Times and here as on RSIS.

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