Despite strong words, the US has few options left to reverse China’s gains in the South China Sea


Adam Ni, Australian National University

At a top regional security forum on Saturday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said China’s recent militarisation efforts in the disputed South China Sea were intended to intimidate and coerce regional countries.

Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China’s actions stood in “stark contrast with the openness of [the US] strategy,” and warned of “much larger consequences” if China continued its current approach.

As an “initial response”, China’s navy has been disinvited by the US from the upcoming 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international naval exercise.

It is important to understand the context of the current tensions, and the strategic stakes for both China and the US.




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In recent years, China has sought to bolster its control over the South China Sea, where a number of claimants have overlapping territorial claims with China, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

China’s efforts have continued unabated, despite rising tensions and international protests. Just recently, China landed a long-range heavy bomber for the first time on an island in the disputed Paracels, and deployed anti-ship and anti-air missile systems to its outposts in the Spratly Islands.

China’s air force has also stepped up its drills and patrols in the skies over the South China Sea.

While China is not the only claimant militarising the disputed region, no one else comes remotely close to the ambition, scale and speed of China’s efforts.

China’s strategy

The South China Sea has long been coveted by China (and others) due to its strategic importance for trade and military power, as well as its abundant resources. According to one estimate, US$3.4 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, representing 21% of the global total.

China’s goal in the South China Sea can be summarised with one word: control.

In order to achieve this, China is undertaking a coordinated, long-term effort to assert its dominance in the region, including the building of artificial islands, civil and military infrastructure, and the deployment of military ships and aircraft to the region.




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While politicians of other countries such as the US, Philippines and Australia espouse fiery rhetoric to protest China’s actions, Beijing is focusing on actively transforming the physical and power geography of the South China Sea.

In fact, according to the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, China’s efforts have been so successful that it “is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”.

America’s declining relevance

China’s efforts are hard to counter because it has employed an incremental approach to cementing its control in the South China Sea. None of its actions would individually justify a US military response that could escalate to war. In any case, the human and economic cost of such a conflict would be immense.

The inability of the US to respond effectively to China’s moves has eroded its credibility in the region. It has also fed a narrative that the US is not “here to stay” in Asia. If the US is serious about countering China, then Mattis’ rhetoric must be followed by action.

First, the US should clearly articulate its red lines to China and others on the kinds of activities that are unacceptable in the South China Sea. Then it must be willing to enforce such red lines, while being mindful of the risks.

Second, the US needs to renew its efforts to cooperate with allies in the region to build capacity and demonstrate a coordinated commitment to stand in the face of China’s challenge.

Third, the US needs to deploy military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, such as advanced missile systems, which would reduce the military advantages gained by China through the militarisation of the South China Sea features.

Long-term consequences

China’s tightening control over the South China Sea is worrying for a number of regional countries. For many, the shipping routes that run through the South China Sea are the bloodlines of their economies.

Moreover, the shifting balance of power will enable Beijing to settle its territorial disputes in the region for good. Without a doubt, China is willing to use its new-found power to change the status quo in its favour, even at the expense of its weaker neighbours.

Control of the South China Sea also allows Beijing to better project its military power across South-East Asia, the western Pacific and parts of Oceania. This would make it more costly for the US and its allies to take action against China, for example, in scenarios involving Taiwan.

On a higher level, China’s assertive approach to the South China Sea demonstrates Beijing’s increasing confidence and its willingness to flaunt international norms that it considers inconvenient or contrary to its interests.

There is little doubt China is becoming the new dominant power in Asia. Its rise has benefited millions in the region and should be welcomed. But we should also be wary of Beijing’s approach to territorial disputes and grievances if it employs military and economic intimidation and coercion.




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If we want to live in a “world where big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small”, then there must be consequences for countries, including China, when they flaunt international norms and seek to settle disagreements with force.

It may be too late to turn the tide in the South China Sea and reverse China’s gains. No one would run such a risk. But it is not too late to impose penalties on China for further destabilising the region through its actions in the South China Sea.

The ConversationThe challenge is to figure out how to do that, and what we would be willing to risk to achieve it.

Adam Ni, Researcher, Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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China says it’s building islands and airstrips in the South China Sea for better weather forecasts


Defence secretary warns of China's 'unprecedented' land reclamation activity in South China Sea


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The secretary of the Defence department, Dennis Richardson, has expressed Australia’s strong concern about China’s recent land reclamation in the South China Sea area.

The speed and scale of the reclamation on disputed reefs and other features raised the question of China’s intent and purpose, Richardson said in very pointed comments, noting that if it were for military purposes this would be particularly worrying.

Delivering the Blamey Oration, Richardson said that looking out over the next two decades, the relationship between the United States, China, Japan and India would provide the backdrop and centrepoint to much of what unfolded in East Asia and beyond – just as the Cold War had done in the second half of last century.

“The US-China relationship sits at the centre. And this invariably opens up the question of just where and how Australia positions itself,” Richardson said.

“Expressed in its most simple and basic terms, our relationship with China and the United States can be summarised in one simple phrase: friends with both, allies with one.”

Australia’s relationship with and interests in China were sometimes different from those of the US – as shown by the recent decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

“Obviously, the Australia-China relationship is still developing the appropriate balance of trust and confidence – in many respects a never-ending journey in international and strategic relations,” Richardson said.

“And, as has been readily acknowledged by successive Australian and Chinese leaders, differences will emerge from time to time.”

Australia was concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea over the last couple of years.

“China now has more law enforcement and Coast Guard vessels in the South China Sea than the other regional countries put together. And given the size and modernisation of China’s military, the use by China of land reclamation for military purposes would be of particular concern.”

It was legitimate to express these concerns “because tensions and potential miscalculations are not in anyone’s interest”.

Richardson also said regional changes would eventually raise questions about whether Australia’s defence needs can be met with a spending level of 2% of GDP. He foreshadowed that a changing Indonesia would require new thinking by Australia.

With few exceptions Australia’s South East Asian neighbourhood would probably become increasingly wealthier and more confident.

“For the first time we will have a neighbour – Indonesia – which will have a bigger economy than our own.

“This will require a psychological adjustment by Australia, as will an Indonesia which continues to embed democratic norms. We will need to rethink engagement strategies and expectations.”

The economic and strategic changes in South East Asia would see real growth in regional defence expenditure, Richardson said.

“This will not be directed against us, but it will mean the capability gap we have traditionally enjoyed in the wider region will significantly diminish and, in some instances, probably disappear.

“This in turn will raise questions – not now but well down the track – whether we will be able to continue to meet our defence needs with around 2% of GDP.”

In 2015-16 the defence budget will reach 1.92% of GDP. The government’s commitment is for 2% of GDP within a decade.

Richardson said the growing wealth of East Asia would not be shared across much of the other part of our neighbourhood – the South Pacific.

“Here, climate change and other constraints may present us with opposite challenges to wealth and confidence. Over time, that could lead to serious questions of labour mobility if some of the smaller South Pacific island countries are to develop sustainable economic growth.”

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan is Professorial Fellow at University of Canberra.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

South China Sea Stand Off


The link below is to an article reporting on the South China Sea stand off and will the USA get dragged into it once the shooting starts?

For more visit:
http://bigthink.com/power-games/how-will-the-south-china-sea-disputes-be-resolved

South China Sea: Will it Come Down to War?


South China Sea: Trouble is Brewing in Territorial Disputes


  1. Is war brewing in the South China Sea? Territorial disputes are raging between China and Vietnam and also between China and the Philippines over a number of island groups in the South China Sea. A recent law passed by Vietnam has added fuel to the fire. The articles and videos below look into the disputes.