South China Sea tensions played a prominent role in discussions at the just-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore. However, ambiguity on several issues raised, whether deliberate or otherwise, has the potential to prolong these very same tensions.
“Great Wall of self-isolation”
At the Dialogue, the U.S. stated that China runs the risk of creating a “Great Wall of self-isolation” due to its South China Sea actions. The premise is that due to its assertive maritime claims in the area, China is actually driving potential partners away from itself and into the arms of the United States.
Yet, this assertion fails to meet the realities of today’s geopolitical environment. While political isolation may have once been possible with smaller states during the Cold War, it is not possible with China today for the same reason it was not possible with the Soviet Union then — the unavoidable global reach of major international players.
Today, with globalization and information and communications technology (ICT), economic isolation is simply impossible. This is the case whether a state is small or large, and whether the isolation is self-imposed or futilely imposed by others. Even small states which have had their own issues with the U.S., like Myanmar and North Korea, are interconnected within the global economy to one extent or another.
With a large, powerful country like China, this is even more so the case. Global economic engagement is what led to China’s spectacular rise in the first place. Even with its economic growth rate slowing down, this has not changed basic facts.
These facts include China’s eventual overtaking of the U.S. to become the largest economy in the world. Another fact might include China’s currency, the renminbi, recently being granted reserve status by the IMF. Finally, regional initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and “One Belt, One Road” succinctly demonstrate China’s resolve to continually engage the world economically, not retreat from it.
China and freedom of navigation
Due to this economic engagement, as opposed to isolationism, freedom of navigation is indeed a concern for China. Freedom of commercial navigation is of the utmost consequence to China, as well as all other states within the region who depend on international trade linkages. Again, China maintains that any attempt by anyone to restrict regional commercial navigation would be self-detrimental.
This is even more so with China as it, along with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea, are dependent on energy trade linkages with the Middle East and Africa. Any disruption in this supply would immediately pose a threat to China’s continued economic viability. Secondarily, but no less important, would be the follow-on effects to China’s neighbors, most of whom have China as their leading trading partner.
This economic viability has political ramifications as well. As China has left behind its doctrine of exporting Communist beliefs abroad, it has adopted continued economic growth as the pillar behind continued rule of its people. If this growth is threatened, through commercial navigation restrictions, China’s Communist Party’s legitimacy will ultimately be called into question. Like their imperial ancestors, they would then lose the “Mandate of Heaven” to rule.
Because of these factors, China will continue to have issues with the U.S over its freedom of military navigation doctrine. This has been most prominently displayed through the U.S.’s freedom of navigation (FONOPs) maneuvers in the South China Sea, where it asserts its freedom to militarily sail anywhere in international waters.
China, for historical reasons, takes issue with this assertion. Just as the U.S. immediately flew 2 B-2 bombers through China’s just-declared East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), a similar tit-for-tat over a potential South China Sea ADIZ declaration would decrease overall regional security immensely.
Shangri-La: Treaty ally vs. “strategic partner”
At one point in the conference, the U.S. referred to both China and Russia as “partners” in dealing with the North Korean problem. This statement, addressing both countries’ roles in the Six Party Talks, was made even despite continued U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia tensions.
Pertinently, the U.S. expressed a flexibility and willingness to work with anyone in order to ensure the security of its treaty allies, South Korea and Japan. Even this modicum of cooperation was overshadowed, however, by the issue of possible THAAD deployment in South Korea.
In contrast to these allies, the U.S. is forging a number of “partnerships” and “strategic partnerships” with states in the region. Vietnam might fall under the former category, whereas India would fall under the latter. However, as of right now, it is unclear what exactly would be expected of the U.S if either of these states actually went to war with China. While the argument may be made that strategic ambiguity better serves deterrence objectives, one need only look at Ukraine’s non-NATO membership status to make the opposing case.
Even among the U.S.’s treaty allies, there are differences. The nature of the U.S.’s commitment to defend Japan is much more explicit than it is with the Philippines, which has only just recently invited U.S. warships back, while simultaneously making new diplomatic overtures towards China. Even Japan, the bedrock of the U.S.’s pivot to Asia, had to actually pressure the U.S. in order to make it unambiguously clear that the U.S. would indeed come to its aid in case of a dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
From the U.S. viewpoint, these allies and partnerships undergird its “Principled Security Network” concept. In addition to being based on more equitable burden-sharing among states on security matters, the concept emphasizes shared values. Unfortunately, China will almost certainly interpret this as a concert of regional democracies (Japan, India, Australia, etc.) conspiring against Beijing.
Compounding this will be the Chinese outlook that the U.S. alliance and partner network itself is a relic of the Cold War and needs to be dispensed with posthaste. Summarily, these three areas might only serve to increase, not decrease, regional tensions.