Maritime maneuvers signal turbulence for South China Sea

Maritime maneuvers signal turbulence for South China Sea

In this special guest post, Dr. Mohan Malik, a professor in Asian Security at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, looks at how the collapse of the Chinese stock market and the landing of commercial flights on one of China’s fake islands in the South China Sea in the first week of 2016 portend the Asia-Pacific region’s twin challenges in the year ahead.

Notwithstanding the economic slowdown in China, Beijing is unlikely to be restrained and accommodating of others’ interests in 2016. China won’t back down on its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea or the East China Sea.

The international court’s verdict on the Philippines’ case against China on the legality of Beijing’s nine-dash line that forms the basis of Beijing’s claim to 80% of the South China Sea (SCS) is expected in the summer of 2016. It has the potential to not only further polarize the region resulting in joint freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) but also to encourage other claimants such as Vietnam and Indonesia to file their own SCS-related cases.

On top of it all, the return to power of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan at a time of prolonged economic stagnation could reignite nationalist passions for external distractions. All in all, a combustible mix indeed.

The SCS, through which more than $5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year, is now the arena of a geopolitical poker game that will determine the future of regional order – Pax Sinica or Pax Americana.

Chinese acceleration of civilian and military infrastructure development includes radars, satellite communication equipment, anti-aircraft, naval guns, helipads, and docks on Woody Island, Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuateron Reef, Gaven Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef. These projects will enhance China’s ability to sustain its naval power and maritime law enforcement presence throughout the SCS.

By 2025, China will have built 5 to 7 air and naval bases, weapons, and fuel storage facilities on the artificial islands and reefs that would allow Beijing to project power deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia (i.e. the Malacca Straits). Given the weak and non-existent naval capabilities of Southeast Asian countries, China’s island fortifications will help the Chinese navy acquire sea denial capability (unless countermeasures are taken) that may well be more successful than the Maginot line.

Of seas and ships in the South China Sea

China is now the world’s largest shipbuilder with the largest number of vessels flying its own flag, and it accounts for a quarter of the world’s container trade. China has also become capable of manufacturing a wide range of naval combatants, including patrol boats, frigates, destroyers, large amphibious ships, and conventional and nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.

They may not be of superior quality, but weapon quality matters only in wartime. In peacetime, a large number of naval vessels showing the flag across the Seven Seas is all it takes to induce a psychological and deterrent effect on friends and adversaries – and China is most adept at playing “the numbers game” to its advantage.

China’s power projection capability is estimated to grow rapidly between now and 2025. China plans to build a blue-water navy that will include four aircraft carriers, the world’s largest submarine fleet, and missile capability that would deny the U.S. Navy the ability to operate inside the “first island chain” (from southern Japan through Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea) and effectively counter regional competitors Japan and India.

Indeed, despite regular “feel-good” high-level summits and numerous “rules of the road” agreements, air and naval encounters by surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and vessels will continue for the foreseeable future because these are deliberately designed to signal that the days of the Pacific Ocean as an “American lake” are now over. What is more, this message is meant as much for Washington as for Tokyo, Seoul, Hanoi, Manila, Jakarta, Canberra, and New Delhi.

In essence, Beijing sees the U.S. military support as the biggest hurdle in inducing Asians to accommodate and acquiesce to Chinese power. But conditioned to viewing regional reactions through the bipolar (U.S. vs China) prism, Asia remains China’s blind spot. Chinese strategic thinkers argue that some resistance to China’s rise is to be expected, but they believe resistance will give way to accommodation followed by reconciliation on China’s terms – sooner rather than later.

As such, the goal is to convince neighboring countries that the overall balance of power has shifted in Beijing’s favor, and their long-term interests lie in cutting bilateral deals with China. In other words, it’s about time for Asians to start looking north to China for their security and prosperity instead of east across the Pacific to the United States.

Bigger concerns

Meanwhile, Beijing is also using its burgeoning military-industrial complex to court, arm, and aid its friends and allies in order to protect its overseas interests, assets, and nationals. China’s insatiable appetite for resources has led the country to establish its presence in far-flung corners of the world – from Asia to Africa to Latin America. The fact that countries with resources, markets, and strategically-located naval bases usually tend to be the largest recipients of Chinese largesse is indicative of Beijing’s search for potential allies.

Slowly but surely, Beijing is working to erode elements of the financial and security components of the post-World War II U.S.-designed international order. President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR, 一带一路) strategy seeks to simultaneously secure China’s continental and maritime interests via dominance of the Eurasian Heartland and exploitation of natural resources for future economic growth and naval development.

Through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund, Beijing is financing hundreds of billions to create its “economic hub-and-spokes system” in continental Asia via pipelines, expressways, and high-speed railway networks linking China with Central, Southwest, and Southeast Asia. These spokes will bring in raw materials and energy resources while exporting Chinese manufactured goods to those regions and beyond.

At the same time, the PLA’s acquisition of expeditionary capabilities will surely create a balancing backlash among its Asian neighbors and worsen the security dilemma. Indeed, China’s unresolved territorial disputes and the “Middle Kingdom syndrome” work to Beijing’s disadvantage; China stands alone on the most contentious security issue in Asia today, the so-called nine-dash line in the SCS, and there is not a single country that publicly supports Beijing’s irredentist maritime claims.

As in Physics, so in International Politics: every action has a reaction. China’s move to expand its strategic frontiers will lead the region’s leading maritime powers to coalesce together so that China is not free to do whatever it wants in the Indo-Pacific region, which encompasses critical transit routes for shipments of Mideast oil to India as well as to China, Japan and Korea.

In particular, Japan is moving to place itself at the center of regional defense relationships with Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, and India as part of a regional security architecture that would balance a rising China.

Strategic calculations

All Asian countries want to benefit from economic ties with China, but none want the region dominated by Beijing or their policy options constrained by China. Nor do they welcome the loss of their territory or strategic autonomy. Instead, they seek to preserve existing security alliances and pursue sophisticated diplomatic and balancing strategies designed to give them more freedom of action.

Despite Beijing’s “win-win” and “mutual benefit” rhetoric, and promises of unconditional aid, the recipients of Chinese largesse know that the money seldom comes without strings attached.

Faced with an aggressive China, Asia’s major maritime powers—Japan, Australia and India—will work in a more synchronized manner in a quadrilateral grouping with the United States. They will be backed by middle powers (South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia) which are increasingly voicing their concerns about Chinese behavior regarding maritime disputes.

They will closely cooperate with each other to promote and defend a rules-based order that does not advantage big and powerful nations at the expense of small and weak states. Over time, various bilateral, trilateral (e.g. Japan-Vietnam-the Philippines, the U.S.-Japan-India, Australia-Indonesia-India, India-Japan-Vietnam) and informal multilateral efforts to constrain China could coalesce into a maritime coalition or the “Indo-Pacific Maritime Partnership” (i.e. an “Asian NATO” by another name).

Being a distant hegemon, the United States will act as the balancing power of choice for most countries along China’s periphery. As such, Washington’s relations with Beijing will remain highly competitive as each seeks to counter the other’s moves. This push-and-shove will continue for decades until Beijing and Washington reach a new power equilibrium.

In short, who emerges at the top in this geopolitical poker game will ultimately determine the future of the world order. In the meantime, the risk of miscalculation lies with the Chinese military overestimating its strength and the rest of the world underestimating Beijing’s ambitions, power, and purpose.

About the Author:

Dr. Mohan Malik is a professor in Asian Security at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu and is the editor of Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region: China, India and U.S. Perspectives  (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and author of China and India: Great Power Rivals (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). He is a trained Sinologist and has broad research interests in China and Asian Geopolitics and nuclear issues. Dr. Malik has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and done consultancy work for the Australian Department of Defence, Booze Allen Hamilton, and Jane’s Information Group. The views expressed here are his own.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.