Upholding Rules Based Order And International Norms In The Indo Pacific – Analysis

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As China has continued to up the ante in the contested waters in South China Sea, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr argued that the presence of the United States was crucial to regional peace during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, as the Southeast Asian country faces growing Chinese pressure in waters off its coastline.

Marcos said that the Philippines and other regional countries had a vision for “peace, stability, and prosperity” in the South China Sea, but it is fast being undermined, pointing out the coercive and deceptive actions in the contested zones that violated sovereign rights.

By pointing out China’s actions as dangerous and destabilising and emphasising on the stabilising presence of the US as being critical, Marcos implies that Manila is taking sides in the domain of security and defence, and sending a message to Beijing that it will continue to work towards shaping a regional response that is solid and resilient at the security realm.

In projecting the security in the South China Sea as a global issue, Marcos is projecting the persistent stance against China’s bellicose actions that have seen Filipino sailors injured, as one that is not only being confined to the enclosed sphere of Manila defending its sovereign rights alone, but one which puts the entire conventional maritime and international order based on rules and law being at stake.

The Philippines remains a strategic partner for the US, providing returns in geographical impact which has seen more military bases being set up and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows US troops to rotate through and store defence equipment and supplies.

The Shang-ri La Dialogue laid bare the growing frictions with stark display of different realities and perceptions by both China and the US, and the different responses through the different lenses of regional powers.

China has accused the US of using the Philippines as a pawn to stir up trouble in the South China Sea. The US needs an expanded fallback option in addition to the groggy Quad, and with the formation of the Squad and momentum of the Camp David Pact and Aukus, the US gets additional supporting actions by allies through the unilateral actions of bilateral defence diplomacy efforts by Japan and others, with the example of the Reciprocal Access Agreements and the Official Security Assistance involving the region.

Despite Blinken’s visit to China last month in an effort to forge closer mutual understanding and to reduce friction, Beijing’s subsequent actions to host Putin and the punishment drills against Taiwan for the inauguration speech by President Lai send a clear rebuke and retaliatory message against the US.

The systemic rivalry was made clearer during the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Seeing deeper containment efforts with the likes of the Squad and greater bilateral defence engagement with regional powers, China continues to hold its card, and the Shang-ri La Dialogue is used to present a no holds barred message and China’s perspective.

The systemic rivalry was made clearer during the Shangri-La Dialogue.US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and China’s Defence Minister Dong Jun met in Singapore on the sidelines of Asia’s premier defence summit.

Austin reiterated the importance of freedom of navigation under international law.Dong responded by telling Austin that the US was stoking tensions through its military presence in the region. The same card is being used, while security dilemmas continue to be worsened.

The first meeting of its kind between US and Chinese defense chiefs in 18 months, hopes of restoring guardrails will not be as hopeful, even as both agreed to reopen hotlines to alleviate tensions and to prevent spiralling of conflicts.

This Dialogue came at a more precarious time with China’s massive drills around Taiwan and higher coercive actions in the South China Sea.

Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng at the Shangri-La Dialogue stated that Beijing will not be soft on foreign interference, in responding to Austin’s speech when Austin mentioned that disputes should not be solved through punishment, in tacit reference to the punishment drills against Taiwan. 

Jing said that the US had “betrayed its promise, hollowed out the one-China principle” and armed the island.Jing also accused Taiwan’s new leader William Lai Ching-te of pushing the island towards the “abyss of disaster”.

Dong also accused Washington of sending the wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces.

In a clearer reference to the drills, PLA Lieutenant General He Lei said the recent exercise around the island was a “rehearsal” for possible combat operations against Taiwan in the future, stating that “This military exercise is the closest to actual combat for the PLA’s task forces to familiarise themselves with the battlefield environment, strengthen coordination, and improve command capabilities,”.

He further states that Beijing does not want to see Washington get involved in a war in the Taiwan Strait, “but we do have countermeasures if that happens”.

The PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command said the exercises were “punishment” for “Taiwan separatists” and a “severe warning” to outside forces intent on interference and provocation.

The PLA also accused the US of seeking to build an Asia-Pacific version of Nato to maintain its hegemony in the region, responding to Austin’s remarks about strengthening alliances across the region.

Austin reiterated that the PRC should not use Taiwan’s political transition, which is part of a normal, routine democratic process – as a pretext for coercive measures.

As in the past warnings, Dong warned Austin that the U.S. should not interfere in China’s affairs with Taiwan, accusing the US of sending a wrong signal to “separatist forces” in Taiwan.

Despite efforts by both Beijing and Washington to try to reestablish norms and guardrails, the extent of disagreements and deep layered misalignments of differences on key and sensitive segments prevent further efforts to deescalate the security dilemmas.

While Biden has always cast the rivalry as one that is of intense competition and to refrain from veering into conflict, real time realities made it difficult to set guardrails that will confine the intense rivalry within the sphere of competition alone.
In addition to that, other analysts have argued that the People’s Liberation Army drills around Taiwan were preordained, in that although Beijing is depicting them as a necessary reaction to President Lai’s comments, these are also being used as a pretext to act in such a way.

In his inaugural remarks, Lai had urged China to stop its coercion and military aggression, and said that Taiwan and China are “not subordinate” to each other.

The warning drills are a continuation of consistent pressure campaigns, where coast guard vessels have been deployed. For these drills, Beijing also is testing the water and the responses from the US and Taiwan, in testing Lai but also in giving enough space for future potential escalation in military moves.

New changes and additions to the drills last month include where coast guard ships are sent to surround Taiwan’s outlying islands, especially Kinmen and Matsu. China stopped recognizing the de facto demarcation of territorial waters in recent months, in a break from the status quo. The use of civilian platforms in this new approach, especially the use of coast guard further blurs the lines between military and civilian capacities and objectives.

The new approaches also include operations near Dongyin in the Matsu chain and that one of the restriction zones established by the PLA around Taiwan, the one east of Taiwan, was substantially closer to Taiwan’s 24 nautical mile contiguous zone than in 2022.

Interestingly, the main opposition Kuomintang, which is widely seen as China leaning, also issued a statement, calling on Beijing to “exercise restraint, avoid escalating the situation,cherish the fruits of peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait, and jointly safeguard the regional status quo.” It further added it “support all actions taken by the government of the Republic of China to safeguard national interests and condemn all actions that undermine regional stability and the status quo”.

Others have questioned why China has executed the drills now during the inauguration of Lai, and not during both of his predecessor Tsai’s inaugurations. The Pelosi effect also contributed to this, where the drills conducted by China in retaliation of Pelosi’s visit were virtually uncontested by the US, thus leaving further rooms for Beijing to build on this and to extend the red line further, in incrementally pushing for a new normal and in limiting the direct hard power responses by neighbouring powers and the US.

New power tools being used to expand regional dominance have heightened security dilemmas and sparking arms races. They have also caused systemic wariness by regional recipients who eventually will be longing for the status quo of a stable rules-based order and rule of law.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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