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There is an alternative to war in the South China Sea

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President Rodrigo Duterte and President Xi Jinping shake hands in 2016 (Image: King Rodriguez of Philippine Presidential Department, Public domain | via Wikimedia Commons)

As China becomes more assertive in the South China Sea, rival claimants have beefed up their military capabilities but there is a better path writes Dr Rashad Seedeen.

“It will be bloody”, warned Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, in a televised address.

Duterte was referring to a potential conflict with China over the disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. Tensions between the Philippines and China have reached ominous levels since March, when over 200 Chinese vessels moored at the Whitsun/Julian Felipe Reef, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Such provocations can only be interpreted as China flexing its naval military strength in their illegitimate claim to the South China Sea — a direct violation of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In 2016, a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration wholly denied China’s historical claim to the South China Sea. China snubbed the hearing and has continued, unabated, developing artificial islands and testing the territorial boundaries of other claimants like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei.

Despite warming relations between China and the Philippines over recent years, the incident has resulted in the Philippines sending military aircraft over the Chinese vessels and increasing naval "sovereignty patrols" in order to maintain the integrity of their territorial waters.

The Philippines has now also established a special South China Sea task force that will increase military capabilities and patrols (naval and air) in the region.

In January of this year, China passed legislation that authorised the coast guard to use ‘all necessary means’  to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels in violation of UNCLOS but providing vague legal coverage for first strike engagement in the South China Sea.  

The last decade has witnessed increasing tensions over claims in the South China Sea and the assertiveness of China in these disputed waters. China actually perceives the South China Sea as part of China through historical claims that go back to the 2nd Century BC. China has outlined their territory through the controversial nine-dash line that cuts directly into the EEZ of rival claimants.    

Further, the South China Sea is pivotal to global trade and holds import resource mineral deposits and fisheries. Over US$3.3 trillion (AU$4.24 trillion) in trade (including 30 per cent of oil trade) comes through the South China Sea, while also being home to a crude oil potential of 11 billion barrels, 12 per cent of the world’s fishing and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

China is an emerging superpower and remains an export-oriented economy — control over the South China Sea is a key plank to its future development. 

The U.S. is well aware of the vital economic opportunities from the trades routes of the South China Sea and since Obama’s pivot to Asia policy, the region has experienced an increased presence from the U.S. military.

Obama’s incremental approach had little impact as China’s assertiveness across the South China Sea expanded unhindered.

The Trump Administration escalated military tensions by launching large-scale naval exercises in the South China Sea. These involved two aircraft carrier strike groups around the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, in close proximity to Chinese amphibious drills involving their navy and coast guard flotilla. Such provocative actions were done with the express purpose of reminding China which state held a preponderance of military capabilities in the world.

Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, cemented animosities by stating unambiguously that China’s claim was “completely unlawful” and that “the world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire”.

Despite abandoning the bellicose rhetoric of Trump, the Biden Administration has continued the same approach in Chinese relations. The USS John McCain – a guided-missile destroyer – arrived in the Parcel Islands of the South China Sea in February — just weeks after Biden’s inauguration.

In April, the U.S. and the Philippines engaged in military drills, the annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises following talks between the two over their shared concerns of China’s "swarming" of Philippine waters.

Regardless of the presidential administration, China has continued to develop military bases on the Spratly Islands and has tested the resolve of rival claimants repeatedly.

The Philippines is not alone in bolstering its military capabilities. Since the beginning of this century, Vietnam has consistently increased military spending with a clear focus on the South China Sea. The spend includes a US$2 billion (AU$2.57 billion) contract with Moscow for six Kilo-class submarines, equipped with supersonic cruise missiles capable of reaching mainland China. Vietnam has also increased strategic military relations with South Korea, Japan and the United States.

But is escalating military tensions the best method in deterring the advancing threat of China?

Provocative military exercises, defending territorial claims to exclusive economic zones and the perpetual military build-up of arms drives strategic rivals ever closer to the prospect of war — an outcome unwelcomed by all.

China’s actions are fundamentally premised on national security and economic interests as is the responses of the Philippines, Vietnam and even the United States. Yet the beefing up of military arms is a zero-sum game that is ultimately counter-productive to the future viability of the South China Sea.

The militarisation of the region breeds animosities, distrust, a decline in communications and intelligence sharing while increasing the likelihood of disruptions to the free passage of trade and the potential for conflict.

A cooperative maritime approach is far superior to military escalations from strategic rivals. National security actually arrives through reducing the threat of war between governments. A cooperative approach could share security arrangements to improve stability and safety for all vessels and, more importantly, eliminate the prospect of conflict between claimants to the South China Sea. Joint approaches to fishing could reduce over-fishing and increase food security. A multilateral approach in dealing with disputes would establish a widely recognised and legitimate mechanism to settle disagreements.

Taiwan actually proposed a South China Sea Peace Initiative in 2015, which included refraining from antagonistic conduct, respect for UNCLOS, maintaining dialogue, creating a code of conduct and developing a mechanism for cooperation for non-traditional security issues like environmental protection and humanitarian assistance.     

The peace initiative never really took off the ground. China refused to entertain the proposal while other states chose not to adopt the proposal due to concerns of offending China (in fear of retaliatory actions from Beijing) and an unwillingness to surrender a measure of sovereignty for the prospect of an untested and fragile peace.

However, proposals like the South China Sea Peace Initiative have much merit and deserve attention. Due to China’s ambitions to claim the South China Sea as national territory, there is very little prospect that it will engage with cooperative efforts — initially. However, if all other claimants actually work towards a cooperative arrangement, bolstered by the United States, it will apply a healthy dose of pressure to China to join or risk becoming a diplomatic pariah. Moreover, collective security will dramatically strengthen military capabilities to deter the growing assertiveness of China.

Both outcomes are mutually beneficial to all parties threatened by China’s recent actions in the South China Sea. Such a bold move would also be quite provocative to China, hence why we have not seen such cooperative efforts materialise. China has a well-established history of applying trade sanctions on governments displeased by China. However, as China continues to test the resolve of these states, cooperation will quickly look like a far preferable option to war.

Dr Rashad Seedeen holds a PhD in international relations and works as a high school teacher. You can follow Rashad on Twitter @rash_seedeen.

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