Warning signs of a South China Sea clash

The spectre of China is looming ever larger over Asia. Now international relations experts are sounding alarms at the risks of an armed clash.

There are always tensions between states, says the ANU’s Professor John Blaxland, “but there is a gnawing sense that this decade may see us get closer to the brink than in generations”.

He, like the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), has offered a new assessment on our region’s potential for conflict.

Repeatedly featuring as a risk of “accidental or inadvertent” conflict is China. Specifically, China’s ambitions towards the East and South China Seas, and Taiwan.

China has increasingly interfered with freedom of navigation, warning military and commercial vessels away from its artificial island bases,” The CFR notes. “It has also harassed vessels belonging to regional claimants, conducted maritime surveys of dubious legality, and attempted dangerous manoeuvres with its own military craft.”

Professor Blaxland writes that China’s President Xi Jinping is struggling to maintain China’s rise in the face of a shrinking population and decelerating economy. This, coupled with “an inclination to project blame on others using the ‘century of humiliation’ as a deflection from its woes”, contributes to a confrontational mindset.

Both see Beijing’s determination to control diminishing resources as increasing the likelihood of an armed international incident.

ISLAND MINEFIELD

The CFR’s Top Conflicts to Watch in 2020 report was issued even as China provocatively sent its navy-controlled coast guard and militia-operated fishing fleets deep into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Jakarta responded with combat aircraft and warships. Beijing eventually backed down, withdrawing its fleet to the edge of Indonesian waters.

“Jakarta shouldn’t misinterpret Beijing’s restraint”, the state-controlled Global Times decreed earlier this week.

“It should not be overlooked that China’s Coast Guard vessels are the most powerful among their kind in Southeast Asia. It could lead to severe consequences and even result in a crossfire if Indonesia wants to oust China’s Coast Guard and fishing vessels by force.”

What happened around the Natuna Islands could become the script for future South China Sea (SCS) stand-offs. And the brinkmanship will only get more intense with each encounter.

“Beijing could interfere with normal operations by other regional claimants, possibly while operating its own vessels dangerously,” the CFR’s Dr Mira Rapp-Hooper warns.

Beijing, she says, is just one step away from severely destabilising the region.

“It could further militarise the Spratly Islands by deploying more military platforms; it could also begin building on the Scarborough Shoal, which it seized from the Philippines in 2012.”

Meanwhile, the jostling over resources ramped up a notch in 2019. And this is unlikely to stop.

“No matter how these incidents develop, China’s actions off both the Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts since May show that Beijing is increasingly willing to employ coercion and the threat of force to block oil and gas operations by its neighbours, even while pursuing its own energy exploration in disputed waters,” notes the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

COMMON CAUSE

Professor Blaxland wrote in Defence Connect this week that the SCS was a high-risk flashpoint – but not the highest.

North Korea tops his threat list, with a score of seven out of 10 for the probability of conflict within the next decade.

But China features prominently in the next four.

He believes Beijing’s assertions over the East China Sea – where it is in dispute over the Senkaku Islands with Japan – is just as dangerous as the situation in North Korea. As is Beijing’s attitude towards Taiwan, “which President Xi Jinping has declared he intends to incorporate into the PRC by force if needs be”.

He ascribes a slightly lesser risk of six to the SCS, “where China flouts the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling to continue encroaching on the maritime claims of its southeast Asian neighbours, using hundreds of armed but non-naval vessels.”

Driving these territorial disputes is a race to secure diminishing resources. And this, Professor Blaxland says, is a trigger for conflict in itself.

“At sea, fish stocks are being plundered across the world’s open oceans and encroaching into EEZs of many small states powerless to stop it; but the supplies are not endless, and they are dwindling rapidly,” he warns, assigning it a conflict risk factor of nine.

Equally risky, he says, is the rapid onset of climate change making islands and hot regions uninhabitable, along with rapidly dwindling freshwater supplies.

RISE OF RESISTANCE

Beijing believes the growing international resistance to its nine-dash line claim to be a blatant assault on its sovereignty and internal affairs.

“The South China Sea has been rough in recent days,” an editorial in the state-controlled Global Times noted earlier this week.

“The South China Sea has been Chinese territory since ancient times. China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in the waters brook no infringement under any circumstances.”

The editorial was referring to Malaysia labelling Beijing’s already debunked territorial claims as “ridiculous” while filing an appeal to the UN to confirm its rights over the waterway.

The Global Times declares the appeal to the UN has “seriously infringed on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea.”

“For years, China has exercised great restraint on the South China Sea issue,” it asserts, claiming regional tensions have eased under Code of Conduct discussions.

“However, to the US, this is not an encouraging tendency. The last thing Washington hopes to see is that China keeps on good terms with Southeast Asian claimants and that the South China Sea situation develops in the right direction.”

That direction, of course, is ASEAN states – such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia – ceding control of all of the South China Sea to Beijing.

“Under such conditions, many regional countries have been forced to take sides between the US and China,” The Global Times admits.

“And with US support, certain forces in this region have seized the opportunity and fermented troubles against China. Malaysia’s submission is an example.”

The CFR does not see matters improving any time soon

“China continues to expand its regional military presence, year by year, and will likely increase its South China Sea operations,” the CFR notes.

“When the world’s pre-eminent power seeks to keep the South China Sea open, while its ascendant rival prefers to control it as its own, the risk of conflict is likely to pervade for years to come.”

GREAT POWER COMPETITION

The CFR’s Preventive Priorities Survey found foreign policy experts believe more flashpoints are “likely to require a US military response for 2020 than in …. the last eleven years.”

And while it is increasingly engaging in great power competition with China, its continuing ability to reassure its Asian allies is being questioned.

“The United States cannot reverse China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. Beijing has succeeded in shifting the balance of power in this waterway in its favour,” Dr Rapp-Hooper writes.

“Washington can, however, return to a coalition-based strategy that aims to keep the South China Sea open and to reduce the likelihood that the long-simmering disputes spiral into full-blown conflict.”

This would require high-level support and engagement in regional forums, such as ASEAN, as well as strengthening ties to those aggrieved by Beijing ambitions.

It would also involve highlighting China’s behaviour on the world stage: “To publicise violations of international law — illegal surveys, freedom of navigation obstruction — when they do occur.”

Professor Blaxland, however, argues the underlying cause of these tensions must be confronted. And that’s “a spectrum of domestic and international governance challenges and looming environmental catastrophe”.

“To mitigate the risks and to prepare for an uncertain future, Australia and its international partners cannot afford to take a cavalier approach to the scope, scale and immediacy of the overlapping environmental, governance and great power contestational challenges,” he warns.

“Australia, for starters, needs to have a long hard think about planning holistically and generously to mitigate the risk of these potential crises, not just for the next election, but for the next generation; and not just for Australia, but for the sake of its neighbours.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel

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