The security temperature in the South China Sea (SCS) has ratcheted precipitously in recent weeks. On May 2, news outlet CNBC reported U.S. intelligence that China has installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on three fortified outposts in the Spratly Islands.
This deployment follows the installation in April of jamming equipment that disrupts military communications and radar systems – also on outposts in the Spratlys.
This continued militarization of SCS features that Beijing controls comes on the back of extensive land reclamation activities – to the tune of 3,200 acres of land – since 2013; the contravention of a 2015 verbal agreement between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama not to militarize Chinese-occupied features; and Beijing’s blatant rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in 2016 in favor of the Philippines.
Most worryingly, the deployment of missiles – for the first time – provides China with offensive power projection capabilities, augmenting its existing anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) naval strategy against its primary rival, the United States.
All these developments, coupled with the lack of any concerted or robust response from the United States and its allies and partners in the region, point to the inevitable conclusion that the sovereignty dispute in the SCS has – irreversibly – become a foregone conclusion. Three compelling reasons justify this assertion.
Beijing’s Preoccupation with Security
First, China sees the SCS issue as a security matter of paramount importance, according it the status of a “core interest” – on par with resolution of the Taiwan question.
From Beijing’s perspective, the greatest threat to its national security stems from the United States and its naval dominance in the Western Pacific – strengthened by the military capabilities of its Japanese and Australian allies.
Surveillance and control over the SCS allows Beijing to detect and deter Washington’s maritime coercion, should the latter choose to do so. The recent deployment of offensive missiles perpetuates the A2/AD strategy of preventing the U.S. Navy’s access to regional waters, while also permitting power projection far from Chinese shores. This safeguards China’s security.
Seen from this lens, there is no chance of Beijing acknowledging the sovereignty claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, or Brunei. It is also wishful thinking to hope that it eventually dismantles the military facilities already constructed in those waters. The reality today is China possesses de facto control of the SCS – and claimant states have little way to combat this fait accompli.
Lack of American Resolve Against Chinese Encroachment
Second, the sovereignty of SCS waters is a foregone conclusion partly because of U.S. ambivalence toward Chinese military encroachment.
Thus far, Washington’s policy response has been conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to assert its rights to traverse the waters aligned with international law. Nonetheless, FONOPs are purely symbolic protests that do nothing to reverse the reality on the ground.
In addition, Washington issues ambiguous statements urging Beijing not to militarize its SCS outposts with veiled warnings of “near-term and long-term consequences” – as the White House put it in response to the latest missile installations. At the time of writing, there was neither clarity nor follow-through on what these “consequences” entailed.
These points suggest that the foreign policy and defense establishment in Washington is of two minds. While it recognizes the threat that China’s expansionism poses to American pre-eminence in the region, it hesitates to risk escalation to the brink of conflict. In other words, the United States’ reluctance to take more robust action in balancing China stems from its wariness of precipitating conflict in Asia.
This failure to signal resolve has emboldened Beijing to continue its reclamation and military build-up. Maintaining the status quo now further entrenches the SCS as “China’s lake.”
Preservation of Peace in Southeast Asia
Third, the implicit acquiescence of ASEAN states toward China’s moves in the SCS has strengthened its position that all features and waters within the “nine-dashed line” belongs to Beijing.
This is because ASEAN member states have prioritized regional peace and stability over sovereignty concerns. As China flexed its military muscle in the region – for example, the seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 – ASEAN statements sought to emphasize the non-use of force and resolution through negotiation, while creating rules like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the SCS, and initiating a Code of Conduct building on the DOC.
In their anxiety to avert conflict in the region, ASEAN claimant states have avoided opposing infringements to its sovereignty claims – most notably from the Philippines, where President Duterte said in February that Manila should not “be fighting over the South China Sea because it will only lead to war.”
Nonetheless, Chinese military expansion has continued – and indeed, hastened. Sovereignty of SCS waters has fallen to China by default because claimant states have neither capacity nor intent to challenge Beijing, preferring the perilous status quo – no overt use of coercive force but permitting the Chinese military’s creeping annexation.
Implications for Southeast Asian Security
The above three factors – Beijing’s sharpened focus on national security, lack of American resolve to balance China in the SCS, and ASEAN’s prioritization of peace and stability over sovereignty considerations – have contributed to the bleak state of affairs today.
What does this mean for security in Southeast Asia?
From the realist perspective, as Beijing accrues naval dominance in the SCS, the rules meant to regulate its behavior are likely to matter less and less – underscoring the geopolitical truism that ‘might is right.’ While China foreswears the use of coercive force on its Southeast Asian neighbors and may indeed have no offensive intentions today, it has now placed itself in a position to do so in future.
In other words, while it had no capacity nor intent to threaten Southeast Asian states previously, it has developed the requisite capabilities today.
Under a different Chinese leader, or when regional geopolitics shifts to one more antagonistic to Beijing’s interests, there is a very real chance that its hitherto benign intent could change. If that happens, there would be nothing stopping China from ‘teaching its neighbours a lesson’ – like how it taught Vietnam and India painful lessons during the 1979 Third Indochina War and the 1962 Sino-Indian border war respectively.
While acquiescing to preserve today’s regional peace and stability makes sense, Southeast Asian states must realize the trade-off that doing so engenders potential costs of military confrontations with China tomorrow – confrontations stacked in Beijing’s favor given its entrenched regional military influence henceforth.
Jansen Tham is a Masters in Public Policy candidate specializing in Politics and International Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.