South China Sea Festers

South China Sea Festers

While the world watches Syria, tension builds.

With all eyes focused on Syria, and reasonably so, the peace that has held in Asia for the past three decades continues to slowly slip away. And while recent developments in the South China Sea, in particular, may seem like par for the course, they point to a less stable future.

China-Philippines relations are in apparent free fall. In late August, Beijing requested that Philippine president Benigno Aquino cancel an upcoming trip to China. Earlier this month, the Philippines’ defense ministry provided evidence that China is preparing to build a structure on the disputed Scarborough Shoal. If the accusation is true, it will mark a gross violation of the (nonbinding) 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Manila subsequently recalled its ambassador for consultations.

And China isn’t the only country building on disputed territory in the South China Sea. Taipei, which has likewise seen a downturn in relations with Manila this year, has announced plans to construct a new wharf on Taiping Island, the largest of the disputed Spratlys, which Taiwan has long occupied. The new dock will accommodate large supply ships and naval frigates. These investments in infrastructure, which will include upgrades to an airstrip on the island, will enhance Taiwan’s ability to defend Taiping as well as to more effectively project power into the South China Sea.

Other disputants cannot help but wonder if Taipei and Beijing are coordinating their moves in the region. In fact, they are not, but the optics may put additional strains on Taiwan’s relations in Southeast Asia.

Looking further to the west, the Vietnamese and Chinese foreign ministers have recently reaffirmed their desire to resolve disputes peacefully, but their countries continue to prepare for less optimal outcomes. Following in China’s footsteps, Hanoi just renamed its maritime police the Vietnam Coast Guard, suggesting a more assertive and more defense-oriented role for its seaborne paramilitary force. To that end, Hanoi is acquiring more patrol boats.

Vietnam is similarly upgrading its air force and came to an agreement with Russia last month for the provision of twelve new, advanced Su-30 fighter jets. And deepening its own involvement in the region, Delhi in early August offered Vietnam a $100-million line of credit for the purchase of defense articles from India.

No less notable was Hanoi’s decision to significantly increase fines on illegal energy surveying by foreign entities in Vietnam’s claimed territorial waters. While the measure seems unlikely to deter the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) from engaging in such activities, it looks like a willful Vietnamese effort to up the ante in its territorial dispute with China and portends more contentious future feuds.

What’s more, Southeast Asian countries are having problems amongst themselves. Most recently, in late August, Malaysia indicated a split with its fellow South China Sea claimants with respect to their approach towards China. In an interview, the Malaysian defense minister said that “just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies,” and suggested that Chinese patrols of disputed territories do not constitute a notable threat. This came as a surprise, as Chinese naval vessels had only months earlier exercised at the disputed James Shoal, only fifty miles from Malaysia’s coast.

With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations unable to form a united front on maritime issues, it is little surprise that China is slow-rolling progress on a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea. Such an agreement would freeze China’s strategy of changing the regional status quo in its favor (see Scarborough Shoal, for example), a strategy which Beijing may judge is working.

Moreover, with the United States trying to reassert its own presence in the region—most notably, by negotiating with Manila to establish rotational naval and air presence in the Philippines—Beijing may see value in forging ahead with its South China Sea agenda now. Best to grab what we can, while we can, before the Americans arrive in force, the thinking may go.

China had adopted a more muscular posture long before the Obama administration’s “pivot” was announced. But the administration’s plodding approach to implementing its new Asia strategy may have encouraged China, at least in the short term, to engage in the very behavior the pivot was meant to deter. That Washington has little idea how to manage the growing crisis in the South China Sea, other than to issue repeated calls for “peaceful resolution,” has done nothing to help matters. Nor have the Obama defense cuts, which undermine the president’s commitment to maintaining peace in Asia.

As the situation in Syria should be making clear, geopolitical conundrums rarely grow simpler of their own accord. They fester. They metastasize. Such is no less true in Asia than it is in the Middle East. It has been a busy summer in the South China Sea, and disturbingly so. But as summer turns to fall, scorching temperatures may only give way to even choppier waters.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Mike_Mazza