ISSN 2330-717X

South China Sea Conflict Escalation Possibility – Analysis


By Dr Subhash Kapila*

South China Sea conflict escalation in2017 hovers as a distinct possibility with the maximalist positons taken by China and the new US Trump Administration in opposing China’s claims.

China’s belligerent postures on virtually claiming the South China Sea expanse as it’s ‘Inland Sea’ are well known and so also China’s propensity to push the envelope to the extreme exploiting the strategic restraint exercised by the previous US Obama Administration.

But post-January 2017 enough indications have been given by President Trump and his cabinet colleagues that the United States intends to adopt hard-line policies against China right across the entire US spectrum of security and trade policies.

Nothing is more galling for the United States than that China in the last decade without any pre-emptive or punitive actions by the United States has defiantly extended ‘de facto’ sovereignty over the entire South China Sea resulting in China’s less powerful claimants looking helplessly on.

The perceptions emerging from the above are two-fold. Firstly, the perceptions in Asian capitals that gathered momentum were that the United States was a timid guarantor of Asia Pacific security. Secondly, that the United States as the unipolar Superpower shirks from meeting China’s aggression in the South China Sea head-on, and moreso when the Hague Tribunal has invalidated China’s claims to the South China Sea expanse.

The Trump Administration in 2017 seems intent on carrying out US course corrections to restore credibility in the region of the United States weight and intentions to exercise its role as a Superpower and regain its unquestioned Asia Pacific predominance more specifically.

Significantly and most noticeably in this direction were the statements made by incoming US Secretary of State Tillerson during his confirmation hearings in the Senate. The new US Secretary of State minced no words in asserting that the Chinese activities in the South China Sea were worrisome for the United States. He put China on notice when he asserted that “Building islands and then putting military assets on these islands is akin to Russia’s taking over of Crimea. It amounts to taking territory of other claimants.” Further indicating American intentions, the US Secretary of State declared that “We are going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island building stops, and second, your access to the islands is now not going to be allowed.”

China expectedly in response declared that China had enough determination and strength to make sure that rabble-rousing will not succeed unless the United States plans to wage a large scale war in the South China Sea.

In United States new policy establishment a feeling has gone around that previous US President Obama’s lack of firm responses to China’s aggression in the South China Sea in the last decade had prompted China to push the envelope a bit too far. The major deduction being that China’s further aggression against its less powerful claimants in the South China Sea needs to be checkmated.

Analysing United States intentions now as asserted by the US Secretary of State, these fall into two sequential steps. First, that China must cease construction of any further artificial islands in the South China Sea and second, that China would not be allowed access to the islands already constructed by China and militarily fortified.

The underlying premise being that the South China Sea maritime expanse is ‘international waters’ and construction of artificial islands in ‘international waters’ considered as ‘global commons is therefore illegal. This legal argument gets further reinforced by the fact that The Hague International Tribunal has already given a ruling dismissing China’s claims on the South China Sea as illegal.

The second assertion made by the US Secretary of State is that China’s access to the illegally constructed islands in international waters is not going to be allowed.

Analytically, China will be in no mood to desist from its ongoing military aggression in the South China Sea, its construction of new artificial islands and even the possibility of declaring a China ADIZ over the South China Sea.

In view of the above, the United States has only two options open to it to bring Chinese anarchy in the South China Sea to an end. In light of China’s belligerence on its disputed sovereignty over the South China Sea, the United States needs to be prepared for conflict escalation in this vital maritime expanse of international waters, and which could blow up to full-scale hostilities between China and the United States..

The choices for the United States are going to be tough but then if the United States wish to regain its earlier Superpower predominance then the United States has to follow the old adage that ‘When things become tough, the tough become tougher’.

China buoyed by its massive military machine that it built up in the last decade when United States was distracted by its Afghanistan and Iraq interventions, is today in no mood to compromise or submit to international conventions, tribunal readings or anything else.

Hence, China will not resile from its existing aggression in the South China Sea, despite any strong assertions that the United States keeps making.

Unlike China, any strong initiatives that the United States may resort to checkmate China on the South China Sea disputes, would find wide regional and global support. China on this issue is bereft of any support in the region or otherwise.

The United States has a precedent to follow to checkmate China’s strategic waywardness in the South China Sea by what it did in the Korean War in fighting the Chinese aggression in the Korean Peninsula under the United Nations flag

As recommended in one of my earlier papers on the subject, presumably the time has come for initiating ‘Freedom of Navigation’ naval patrols under the United Nations flag as a multi-national effort as opposed to American sporadic efforts lately. There is also the case for planning a permanent UN Naval Force presence in the South China Sea to challenge China’s illegally presumed sovereignty.

If China intends to defy United Nations mandates, then so be it. Chinese defiance would pave the way for stiffer multinational responses. If the United States and the West could impose ‘Air Exclusion Zones’ in Southern Iraq in the past, why cannot the United States in the lead, as a further initiative impose a ‘Naval Exclusion Zone’ in the South China Sea to limit China’s further aggression and additional artificial island building in these international waters.

In conclusion, it needs to be highlighted that the Asia Pacific region subjected to Chinese aggression and waywardness in the South China Sea for a decade waits expectantly for President Trump to ‘walk the talk’ and restore US credibility. Towards this direction the new US Administration would have to ignore the US- China Lobby in Washington spearheaded by the US-China Business Council and the powerful likes of Henry Kissinger.

*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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