China weighs options in South China Sea

US move to test China's claims by conducting 'freedom of navigation' exercises can backfire

According to The New York Times, the United States has made a decision to test China's claims in the South China Sea by conducting "freedom of navigation" (FON) exercises.

This means US warships and perhaps warplanes will penetrate the assumed 12 nautical mile territorial sea of some of the features claimed, occupied and built upon by China.

The other shoe that is about to drop is a decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on whether it has jurisdiction regarding the complaint filed by the Philippines against China for allegedly violating the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China is weighing its options regarding its responses to both.

The main purpose of a public US challenge would be to demonstrate to its allies and the world Washington's will to defend freedom of navigation and to dissuade China from any further "aggressive" actions and claims in the South China Sea.

But doing so is dangerous and could backfire. The exercises will likely embarrass China's leadership.

China could try to ignore the provocation, arguing that the US warships or warplanes are not penetrating Chinese territorial seas or airspace without permission because the feature in question was constructed on a submerged reef that is not entitled to a territorial sea. This is not likely.

Perhaps in a triumph of diplomacy, the whole affair will be choreographed with China "allowing" such a demonstration and the US tacitly acknowledging that China has to respond - but short of a confrontation.

China could choose to harass the US vessels by buzzing them with its warplanes - or perhaps civilian (coast guard) planes. They could also deploy coast guard vessels to shadow the US Navy ships or they could have fishing vessels actually obstruct their passage. This is not a worst scenario.

US Marine MK-58 Hawker Hunter fighter jets flying over an assault amphibious vehicle during an amphibious landing exercise as part of an annual joint US-Philippines naval exercise facing the South China Sea in San Marcelino, north of Manila, last Fri
US Marine MK-58 Hawker Hunter fighter jets flying over an assault amphibious vehicle during an amphibious landing exercise as part of an annual joint US-Philippines naval exercise facing the South China Sea in San Marcelino, north of Manila, last Friday. China has publicly positioned its sovereignty and claims in the South China Sea as a matter of national dignity and redemption for its "century of humiliation". So it is difficult for its leadership to back down. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 In a worst scenario, Beijing would confront the warships and warplanes with its own - demanding that they leave "Chinese waters". Then Washington would be faced with a dilemma of its own making. It could either "put up" and risk escalating a crisis or "shut up" and stand down - which would show weakness, damage its reputation and generate doubt about its commitment to its friends and allies. Moreover, there is always the possibility of an accident or a miscalculation.

In response to the leak or "notice" that the US is about to undertake FON exercises in the South China Sea, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "There is no way for us to condone infringement of China's territorial sea and airspace by any country under the pretext of maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight".

Indeed, US decision makers may underestimate the zeal of China's nationalist movement and the leadership's need to accommodate it. China has publicly positioned its sovereignty and claims in the South China Sea as a matter of national dignity and redemption for its "century of humiliation". This makes it very difficult for China's leadership to back down on these issues.

Thus the action that the US is about to take could result in a serious international crisis. Is it worth the risk? Apparently we are all about to find out - if not immediately then over the longer term - as US-China relations sour and the contretemps drags most of South-east Asia and Asean into a contest between the two powers for their hearts and minds.

As Singapore's former foreign minister  K. Shanmugam said recently, "I'm not sure if we have the luxury of space as we had in the past of being friends with everyone". In the next few years, "because of their competition, they, as major powers are wont to do, will soon be talking to us in terms of 'either you're with us or against us'".

Regarding the arbitration, if the panel decides it does not have jurisdiction, the South-east Asian claimants - including besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - will be resigned to negotiating their overlapping claims with an ever more powerful and intimidating China. And, like the Philippines, will most likely take political and even military measures to protect themselves - and draw ever closer to the US.

But the more longer-term and fundamental decision for China is what it will do if the court decides it does have jurisdiction and - pursuant to Philippine pleadings - declares preventative measures against China to cease and desist from all reclamation/construction there.

China could comply and represent itself at the next stage of the arbitration - the deliberation on the specific Philippine complaints. This would signal recognition of the current international order, the jurisdiction of the international courts, and usher in an era of stability and peace in the region. This is highly unlikely.

It is much more likely that China will respond by ignoring the ruling and any further decisions. It may then militarise the features and expand military patrols as feared by the other claimants and the US.

Indeed, it could argue that the US and perhaps others have already militarised the region and the issues and that China is simply responding in kind.

Legal and political uncertainty would reign in the South China Sea, and violent incidents there are likely to proliferate. The authority and legitimacy of the dispute-settlement mechanism and even the Law of the Sea itself would be undermined.

China may also increase economic and political pressure on the Philippines - and any other claimant that joins it in supporting the verdict. This would give notice that China is not to be trifled with - that it will not "be taken advantage" of by small Asian countries - some still linked to and influenced by their former colonial masters.

But the worst part of all this is that relations between the US and China would nosedive - and the region would be tense for some time to come . This would be a lose-lose outcome for all concerned.

  • The writer is adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2015, with the headline 'China weighs options in S. China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe