Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm

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Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm

The cooling down some are playing up masks underlying tensions and broader strategic realities.

Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm

U.S. littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) steams independently during operations in the South China Sea in February 2017.

Credit: US Navy Photo

A year after the supposedly game-changing arbitral tribunal ruling on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against China, the region appears to have entered another period of calm that some are happy to play up. But though a superficial glance might suggest that a cooling down period is truly at play in the South China Sea, a deeper look points to the reality that any calm is illusory at best and shows few signs of lasting.

The illusion of calm in the post-ruling context is due to a confluence of various factors. Chief among them is the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines last June, which, at least for now, has seen Manila shift from the most forward-leaning Southeast Asian claimant in the face of Chinese assertiveness to a laggard, downplaying the South China Sea issue and the ruling it had sought in a bid to reset ties with Beijing (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”).

Though Duterte is often singled out as the main factor in the perceived changing the strategic environment in the South China Sea, the reality is that others have either been complicit in this change or have benefited from it (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”). Most obviously, China has exploited this idea of what its officials like to term “cooling down” for now, playing up what is at best a skeletal draft framework on the code of conduct and shutting down attempts by non-claimants to interfere as it remains preoccupied with the 19th Party Congress later this year.

Among Southeast Asian states, though a few, particularly Vietnam, remain anxious about this period of illusory calm, the other two Southeast Asian claimants, Malaysia and Brunei, do find some comfort in the fact that they, as one Southeast Asian official put it to me in June, “have just some time to breathe.” This reflects not just the divisions within ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, but also other dynamics beyond the issue itself such as the changing threat environment brought about by the Islamic State’s advances in the subregion, domestic politics with upcoming elections in Malaysia and Indonesia (a non-claimant but interested party, as I have noted before), and the growing pressure China is asserting on individual Southeast Asian states – from Vietnam to Singapore (See: “China: New White Paper, Old Asia Conundrum”).

This complicity does not stop at the region itself. The election of Donald Trump had initially played into the illusion of calm in the South China Sea as well. Rather than the more hawkish U.S. China policy many in the region were expecting given Hillary Clinton’s views as well of those articulated by some of Trump’s advisers during the campaign, the initial wild swings we saw in the administration’s approach to Beijing had given rise to the idea that we could see a tacit agreement by the two powers to downplay the South China Sea issue in favor of cooperation on North Korea (See: “Trump’s Real ASEAN Test”).

This view, still held in some Southeast Asian capitals that worry about the unpredictability of Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy, tends to intensify doubts about U.S. credibility and reinforce unilateral actions, and, to a much lesser extent, intra-ASEAN cooperation and hedging tendencies.

But a deeper look suggests that any kind of “cooling down” in the South China Sea is illusory. First, though major forms of destabilizing behavior have been absent, tensions continue to simmer and in some cases have already begun to boil over.

Most notably, as data from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has illustrated, even as China engages in negotiations with ASEAN states over the draft framework of the COC, Beijing has shown no signs of stopping the construction of military and dual-use facilities on the Spratly Islands, which violates the DOC and President Xi Jinping’s own non-militarization pledge and only confirms that it is bent on assuming de facto control of the South China Sea.

ASEAN states are well aware of this reality, and so they too have continued pursuing their own unilateral steps quietly and at times publicly to safeguard their claims even as they continue on the negotiating track with Beijing. More visible steps of late have included Indonesia’s recent announcement of the North Natuna Sea designation and the Sino-Vietnamese tussle, allegedly over the typical range of issues from energy exploitation to Vietnam’s foreign alignments (See: “Why Did Indonesia Just Rename its Part of the South China Sea?”). But to that we must also add quieter moves that are notable too, including Malaysia’s hardening rhetoric and tougher enforcement against maritime encroachments even as Prime Minister Najib Razak continues to engage Beijing on issues like its Belt and Road Initiative.

Meanwhile, the United States and other extraregional powers have not let up on the South China Sea issue, even if they may be quieter now about what they are doing. U.S. kinetic actions in the South China Sea – from the much-ballyhooed but often poorly understood freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to much more frequent presence operations – have continued and in some cases even accelerated (See: “What Mattis’ Shangri-La Dialogue Speech Revealed About Trump’s Asia Policy”).

Other influential actors, such as Japan, India, and Australia have also continued a range of measures designed to assist Southeast Asian states who are more than happy to oblige, no doubt realizing that unless they get the external assistance to close the vast asymmetry in naval, coast guard, and aerial capabilities between them and Beijing, they will essentially be acquiescing to Chinese control of the South China Sea that would not be in their interests for a stable balance of power in the region.

Second, there is reason to expect underlying tensions are likely to boil over sooner than later and put an end to this period of illusory calm.

The pattern of Chinese behavior over the past few years in the South China Sea suggests that any brief period of calm such as this one is likely nothing more than temporary tactical maneuvering rather than some sort of strategic rethinking that some keep hoping for. As I have repeatedly pointed out, including last year just as we began to enter this so-called cooling down period, the evidence indicates that Beijing tends to calibrate its assertiveness with alternating periods of charm and coercion (See: “Beware the Illusion of China-ASEAN South China Sea Breakthroughs”).

For instance, just seven months after unveiling a new strategy for ASEAN-China relations as part of a new charm offensive in Southeast Asia, China moved an oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the summer of 2014. And in spite of hopes that China may change its South China Sea approach in 2015 – which Beijing had declared “the year of ASEAN-China maritime cooperation” – it ultimately sped up its island-building activities while continuing to intrude into the waters of some ASEAN states and stonewall negotiations on a COC. Though this time might be different, history suggests that this would be a bad bet to make.

Thus, there is every reason to expect that Beijing will at some point step on the gas pedal in the South China Sea once again, whether it be infringements into ASEAN states’ waters from its outposts in the Spratlys that many expect or even bolder cost-imposition strategies on claimant and non-claimant Southeast Asian states designed to both test their resilience and further divide ASEAN. Even though China carefully calibrates its actions tactically, it has shown few signs of departing from its strategic objective of acquiring the full range of capabilities required for control of the South China Sea.

Given this, ASEAN states are unlikely to stop their own unilateral efforts to safeguard their claims to not just particular areas of the South China Sea, but the resources therein. Indeed, these actions could even accelerate soon. The public announcement by a Philippine energy official last week that drilling for oil and gas on the Reed Bank could resume before the end of the year – a move that would be consistent with the tribunal ruling but nonetheless would rankle Beijing – was an important reminder of how tensions could flare up if the clock runs out on Duterte’s charm offensive aimed at China.

Meanwhile, in the United States, as the Trump administration continues to test the limits of engagement with China on issues ranging from North Korea to economic collaboration, hawkish voices, which had already begun gaining ground in Washington towards the end of the Obama administration, are getting even louder. Compared to 2009, when we first began to see the first signs of Chinese maritime assertiveness,in Washington it is much more common now to hear the South China Sea issue being framed as a test of American credibility and case study in how a rising China plans on treating its neighbors (See: “US South China Sea Policy After the Ruling: Opportunities and Challenges”).

If U.S.-China ties sour even more and we see Beijing undertake more provocative measures, such as reclaiming Scarborough Shoal or declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, we should not rule out the possibility of the United States taking some of the bolder cost imposition measures that have long been debated in think tank circles, and ones I had outlined in these pages back years earlier (See: “The Case for a Bolder US South China Sea Policy”).

More broadly, though some Chinese interlocutors had grown fond of Trump’s transactional approach, it is worth noting that this narrow worldview is a double-edged sword. Deals may be easily made, but they are also easily broken, and relationships based on deals can quickly go south because they are based more on impulses in a divided administration than deeply-held worldviews in a more unified one (relatively speaking) under Obama. Within a U.S. foreign policy context, the U.S. president is also of many actors, and to conflate the views of the president who has no prior foreign policy experience with the overall course the administration ends up adopting would be a serious mistake.

As some continue to obsess over details in this period of illusory calm in the South China Sea, be it the specifics in the draft framework of the code of conduct or Duterte’s pro-China rhetoric, it is worth bearing the broader strategic perspective in mind.