The Buzz

The South China Sea: Asia's New Battlefield?

MANILA–“The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China,” claimed Chinese President Xi Jinping during his intimate retreat in Sunnylands with his American counterpart, Barack Obama, back in 2013. Optimistic about a new era of cooperation, Xi espoused a “new model of great power relations.”

Three years on, the two superpowers are on a collision course in the South China Sea, the world’s most important waterway. Intensified Sino-American rivalry, and its regional reverberations, was well on display during the latest edition of the Asian Security Summit, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which brought together the world’s leading defense officials and experts in Singapore.

Though less strident than expected, the United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s speech was an attempt to provide unequivocal justification for America’s growing military footprint in Asia and its deepening security alliances with a wide array of regional powers. He boasted about Washington’s huge military qualitative edge, namely its new undersea drones, the Virginia-class submarines, and the new B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber. Presenting America as a benign power, he lauded its willingness to share “most advanced capabilities to the Asia-Pacific” partners, particularly Japan and Australia.

His tone, however, shifted once theme of China and its regional ambitions came up. He openly accused China of taking “some expansive and unprecedented actions” that put into doubt its “strategic intentions.” He warned, “if these actions continue,” China would end up erecting a “Great Wall of self-isolation.” Carter went so far as characterizing China’s actions as “provocative, destabilizing and self-isolating.”

Defense ministers of other Western and regional powers, from France to India, Japan and Vietnam, also expressed their concerns with China’s growing military footprint in the South China Sea. Over the past two years, China has reclaimed 3,200 acres (1,295 hectares) of land across disputed waters, building humongous artificial islands that host dual-purpose (civilian and military) facilities. No other claimant country, including Vietnam, comes even close.

In recent months, China has deployed advanced military hardware to some of its islands in Paracel and Spratly chain of islands, ranging from high-frequency radars and surface-to-air-missiles to state-of-the-art fighter jets. The growing presence of Chinese fishermen-cum-militia forces is another source of concern. As China builds a sprawling network of military facilities in the area, there is growing fear that China may soon be in a position to establish an ‘exclusion zone’, denying freedom of overflight and navigation to regional and external military forces.

Protecting the Commons:

Carter mentioned the word “principled” 38 times, trying to present China’s activities in the South China Sea as a threat to international law and the interest of the broader international community, particularly when it comes to global commons such as freedom of navigation and overflight.

One theme that often appeared in the speeches of and exchanges among top defense officials was the Philippines’ arbitration case against China. Beginning in 2013, few months after a dangerous standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, Manila filed a case against Beijing at an arbitral tribunal under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

A final verdict is expected in coming weeks. Most experts anticipate an unfavorable outcome for China,which has boycotted the whole proceedings; questioned the jurisdiction and competence of arbitration bodies under UNCLOS to oversee the South China Sea disputes; and accused the Philippines of violating prior bilateral and multilateral agreements by initiating a compulsory arbitration case at The Hague.