It seems if the People’s Republic of China is going to make a push to radically alter the status-quo in the South China Sea—by reclaiming the hotly disputed Scarborough Shoal that is clearly within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines—we now have a good idea of when that might happen: sometime between early September, after the G-20 summit being hosted in China, and the U.S. presidential election on November 8th.
The idea was laid out in a recent article in the South China Morning Post in an article dated August 13th. The report, quoting “a source familiar with the matter”, said that Beijing would not carry out any reclamation work on the Shoal before hosting the G-20 next month but could begin construction before America goes to the polls. “Since the G20 will be held in Hangzhou next month, and regional peace will be the main topic among leaders of the great powers, China will refrain from [acting on the] reclamation plan,” explained the source, who was not identified.
As I noted in a recent piece, if China were to make a big move in the South China Sea, especially to counteract the recent ruling in the Hague that nullified any possible claims to almost the entirety of this important body of water, after the G-20 and before the U.S. presidential election makes the most sense. As I explained:
“Always looking to enhance its status as a rising superpower as well as play the part that China is the ultimate partner nation and never one to start trouble, Beijing will follow a carefully well scripted playbook in the South China Sea — lots of fiery talk and signaling, but no escalatory steps for the time being. China would not want to risk having any drama at this prestigious gathering — beyond what could occur already when it comes to tensions in Asia. Why rock the boat and lose face? Now is simply not the time for a squabble. I would argue Beijing has every incentive to hold its fire until after the summit.
But the plot thickens from there, adding more reason to the argument that Beijing is holding back for the right time to respond. Why not take advantage of the daily media drama show that is the U.S. Presidential election cycle and save any escalatory moves in the South China Sea so they simply get buried in the news cycle?
There could not be a better time to start trouble in the South China Sea, at a time when the United States—truly the only nation that could really deter Beijing from troublemaking — will be very much distracted in the business of selecting its next Commander-in-Chief. American as well as global media will be very much focused on the battles to come between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton...”
But there is also now another reason such an anonymous source might want to come forward and reveal such information, stating such a move “is a must for China”, especially right now: it puts pressure on Manila to reach a settlement. With reports like the above advancing a narrative of possible reclamation as well as recent deployments of large numbers of ships around the shoal as well as ‘bomber selfies’ over the area, China is signaling it may be getting ready to act boldly. And with newly appointed Philippines envoy, former President Fidel Ramos, just concluding talks in Hong Kong, in what was described as an ice-breaking session, pressure is mounting on Manila to not only speed up negotiations, but agree to a settlement on China’s terms.
How Washington responds to the gathering storm clouds over the South China Sea is critical. The Obama Administration should continue to make clear—it has done so now on at least a few occasions, according to press reports—reclamation at Scarborough would be a mistake, signaling the creation of what Center for New American Security (CNAS) scholar Patrick Cronin called a “pink line”, essentially that Washington could, and I emphasize could, consider such a move a game changer, and act according. But such statements, with this administration having such little time in office left and likely unable to react decisively unless staring down the possibility of a major crisis—knowing it would need to hand off any major policy shifts in Asia to a new administration—could ring hollow. Considering this, China might decide now is the time to lock in its gains in the South China Sea.
One thing is for certain, it stands to reason Asia watchers here in Washington may very well have a very busy fall indeed.
Image: Creative Commons.