By Felipe Villamor
An all-out war in the South China Sea is unlikely at this stage even though military giants the United States and China appear to be positioning themselves aggressively in the disputed waters of the maritime region, analysts said.
The Philippines entered the fray last week when Manila assured Beijing that it would not take part in maritime exercises in the sea being purportedly planned by the U.S., in deference to Chinese leader Xi Jinping who is scheduled to visit the country next month. Washington, however, has officially denied that such plans were in the offing, as first reported by American news channel CNN two weeks ago.
Both the U.S. and China are merely posturing, according to Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
“I do not think we are moving toward war,” Batongbacal told BenarNews. “Despite the rhetoric, it is not in either country’s interest to engage in a full-blown war with each other.”
While the U.S. had not “restrained” itself from armed conflict with other states such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Panama, Washington may choose to tread carefully vis-à-vis China, which can possibly match it in “nuclear capability” and “war fighting capability,” he said.
And directly challenging Beijing over the South China Sea remains unpopular among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which recently moved toward a collective response of appeasement.
“A serious armed conflict is also not in the interest of any one of the countries in the region despite their issues with China,” Batongbacal said.
“ASEAN as a whole does not want to become a battleground for the super powers, and likely prefers a more moderate, mediatory role between the two competing powers.”
The Russian factor
Overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea have long been a source of tension in the region, pitting China against rival Taiwan and ASEAN states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
This had led to violence in the past, and the mineral-rich sea remains a constant focus of regional tensions. Recently, the Southeast Asian bloc and China agreed to a draft of “code of conduct” to govern actions in the region, which many considered a positive development.
But China has continued with its militarization efforts in the sea, expanding islands that it claims and installing anti-aircraft weapons. These developments have worried the U.S., which responded recently by conducting freedom of navigation flights and sailing in the South China Sea.
In addition, China’s friendship with Russia, another super power that rivals the U.S., is seen as complicating matters, even though Moscow at this stage would not directly engage in a conflict far from its sphere of influence, analysts said.
Russia remains focused on Europe and former Soviet states, and its interests lie farther westward than in Southeast Asia, which is less geopolitically important to Moscow, they said.
“Russia has its own issues with the U.S., which it chooses to address on its own and without earnest need for Chinese collaboration or coordination,” Batongbacal said, adding that Moscow, however, would not mind “taking positions or actions that are against the U.S.”
“Russia will look out for its interests; if China happens to benefit from that, well and good; but Russia does not have to go out of its way to look out for China’s interests also,” he said.
Meanwhile, Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, like Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte, has been careful about stoking tensions in the sea, warning in a recent interview that an agitated China could present more problems for Southeast Asia, which relies heavily on the South China Sea for trade and shipping.
Irritating China could escalate tensions and lead to war, the Malaysian prime minister told BBC News.
According to Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila, Mahathir has taken the lead as ASEAN’s elder statesman with regard to tensions in the South China Sea.
And the 93-year-old leader has used that authority to point out Beijing’s “revanchist behavior” at the expense of smaller countries like the Philippines while, at the same time, advocating for peace with calls for demilitarization and a cessation of general hostilities.
“This is consistent with his non-aligned foreign policy outlook and long-time commitment to a dialogue-based resolution of disputes,” Heydarian said.
“What’s new, however, is his forthright criticism of Chinese expansionism, whether through predatory infrastructure deals or reclamation activities in contested waters,” he added.
Heydarian said Russia enjoyed a “strategic” relationship with China, having conducted joint exercises in the past, but Moscow would likely not gamble away its warm relations with other claimant countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, for example.
“In fact Russia has been a major source of armaments for Vietnam, including advanced submarines, which are being used to deter Chinese intrusion into Vietnamese waters in the South China Sea,” Heydarian said.
As Moscow slowly pivots as well to Asia, it remains conscious of carving out a role for itself in the region, whether militarily or commercially, Heydarian said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was scheduled to visit the Philippines in November, in what the Duterte administration here has sold as an alternative to long-standing U.S. relations.
Duterte was expected to lay out the red carpet for his Chinese counterpart, during a visit which comes as both countries are in the final stages of negotiating a joint exploration-sharing deal in the South China Sea.
The deal could likely cover the Reed Bank, also called Recto Bank, in the South China Sea that is believed rich in mineral deposits. The area lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which was affirmed by an arbitration court in 2016, although China has continued to contest its ownership.
Xi’s upcoming visit is aimed at “further cementing” bilateral relations, the Philippine government has said.