Features | Security | Southeast Asia

South China Sea Is No Powder Keg

China isn’t looking for conflict in the South China Sea. Indeed, it already seems to be moderating its language over it its spat with the Philippines.

Over the past several weeks, China’s assertive posturing toward the Philippines over the Huangyan Island (Panatag Shoal) section of the South China Sea has generated a great deal of consternation in Asia and beyond. Given the tense situation in the region, it’s quite reasonable to be concerned about how this territorial dispute may lead to a downturn in relations between the two countries.

However, surface appearances notwithstanding, there’s little evidence that Beijing is actively pursuing such an outcome. On the contrary, even in the South China Sea, an area that to many appears particularly ripe for rivalry, there is some cause for optimism.

It’s obvious that Beijing has ratcheted up its campaign to use more blunt measures toward Manila. Yet the intent of such actions isn’t to provoke military conflict, but rather to pressure the Philippines to negotiate with China over the status of the territory in dispute.  To be clear, Beijing has shown absolutely no willingness to relinquish it claims in the region. It’s unlikely to ever do so. To think otherwise is both naïve and misinformed.

But at the same time, it has been close to two decades since the last direct, albeit minor, military engagement between China and the Philippines occurred in this maritime area. In addition, during the ensuing period of relative calm, the Chinese signed onto the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which obligates China (and other signatories) to use only peaceful means to resolve their differences. When such developments are juxtaposed with earlier, more assertive, Chinese behaviors, they suggest that the overall trend in Beijing’s approach toward this region points more in the direction of cooperation than conflict.

While many skeptical observers have dismissed the 2002 agreement as mere empty talk, even its critics must acknowledge that China hasn’t directly violated any of its facets. This doesn’t mean Beijing will never do so, or that all is well in the South China Sea. However, it does suggest that the existing situation in the region contains greater evidence of stability than those most critical of the Chinese tend to acknowledge.

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Beijing is only likely to take more provocative actions if the Chinese leadership feels it has been directly provoked. Despite the recent escalation of saber rattling within Asia, it’s difficult to find any indication of such a threat. Absent such a catalyst, China won’t jettison the commitments it has made in the South China Sea in favor of the use of direct military force to lay claim to disputed territories.

More interestingly, hints of a toning down of the more combative elements in Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea can now be found. For example, the Chinese media campaign against the Philippines is no longer as shrill as it was several weeks ago. Beijing has de-emphasized the warnings it was issuing about limited patience and other actors needing to know their place. Instead, a number of high profile commentaries have been published within China that warn war in the South China Sea would be more in the interest of the Philippines than it would China.

More broadly, a pair of additional factors further lessens the likelihood of an escalation of the conflict.

First, some within the Chinese establishment feel that Beijing’s current South China Sea policy is no longer effective and viable. Along these lines, inchoate calls have begun to appear that argue for a national-level effort to coordinate and integrate the disparate pieces of China’s South China Sea policy. Moreover, some well-placed Chinese analysts have even contended that provocative Chinese actions in the South China Sea could cause significant damage to what they perceive to be China’s “period of strategic opportunity” in the region.

Second, and, of greater importance, it’s very unlikely that any big policy initiatives will be unveiled before the 18th Party Congress scheduled to take place this autumn. Periods of leadership transition seldom produce bold shifts in Chinese foreign policy. Moreover, as the cases of Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng are still reverberating within China, it’s fair to expect Beijing to be quite risk-adverse in its dealings with the outside world. There is already much uncertainty in the air, and war with one of China’s main neighbors would only exacerbate such a situation, making the leadership more, rather than less, insecure.

In sum, barring incipient regime collapse, and a leadership decision that a major international crisis in the South China Sea would bolster regime legitimacy, it’s hard to imagine a further escalation of tensions between China and the Philippines. Instead, it would appear a high water mark has already been reached in terms of confrontational Chinese positioning in the South China Sea. And, although an enhancement of stability there is unlikely in the near term, the prospects for outright military conflict are equally remote.

Allen Carlson is an Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Government Department. Xu Xin is the Director of Cornell University’s China and Asia Pacific Studies Program.