From a Slow Simmer to a Boil: Managing Tensions in a Heating South China Sea

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From a Slow Simmer to a Boil: Managing Tensions in a Heating South China Sea

Tensions are rising in the South China Sea.

From a Slow Simmer to a Boil: Managing Tensions in a Heating South China Sea
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Furey/Released

Last August, regional observer Collin Koh Swee Lean at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore compared the South China Sea to a “pot of soup on low boil.”  Developments in September and early October 2018 suggested that the surface tension in the pot would soon erupt into a boil. Current dynamics in the South China Sea pose critical policy implications for all parties who are stakeholders in regional security.

The U.S. Navy conducted its 12th publicized freedom of navigation operational patrol or FONOP in the South China Sea in late-September. This was the eighth operational assertion under the Trump administration. The USS Decatur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in Spratly islands. It is likely the USS Decatur conducted an innocent passage.

In response, China dispatched a Luyang-class destroyer to confront the USS Decatur. The Chinese destroyer closed to within 45 yards of the USS Decatur’s bow. The USS Decatur had to conduct an emergency maneuver to avoid a collision. Washington described the engagement as “an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver” and “reckless harassment.” Vice President Mike Pence pointedly asserted a few days after the incident that the U.S. “will not be intimidated” and “will not stand down.”

China’s response to the operation by the USS Decatur was unprecedented. As Carlyle Thayer observed, this was the first time China’s actions posed a real risk of an accident with a U.S. naval ship conducting a FONOP. In previous FONOPs, China deployed military ships to shadow and protest the operations of U.S. naval ships from a safe distance. Bonnie Glaser postulated there was a change to China’s rules of engagement by the Central Military Commission headed by Chinese top leader Xi Jinping.

Thayer and Glaser both agreed that China’s reaction to the latest operation should be seen in a larger context of bilateral economic and diplomatic tensions, of which most notable are U.S. import tariffs on China and recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Additional factors include the increased frequency of U.S. continuous bomber presence patrols (for example, the deployment of B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers in late September), the withdrawal of an invitation for China to  participate in the 2018 RIMPAC military exercise, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ cancellation of a planned trip to China, and the increased presence of external maritime powers like the U.K., France, Japan, Canada and others in the South China Sea.

Southeast Asian states are likely to hold their breath to observe what will happen next in the South China Sea after the Decatur incident and the sharp exchange of words between Washington and Beijing. This raises some intriguing questions: How will the U.S. react to China’s increased aggressiveness in the South China Sea? What will the other major powers do, given their increased operational presence in the area? Will China declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea as rumored for some time? And what should ASEAN and its members do to contribute to regional peace and stability?

Washington continues to enhance its military presence in the South China Sea. For the first time ever, the U.S. revealed in advance its plan to conduct military exercises in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait in November. The U.S. attempted but failed to convince India, Australia, Japan and several powers to conduct joint operations in the South China Sea. But, in consideration of increased engagement by the U.K., France, Canada, Australia in months after 17th Asia Security Summit (or Shangri-La Dialogue), this situation may change.

A leadership change in Australia in late August, for instance, could bring about a significant change in Canberra’s approach to the South China Sea. New Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne was critical of China’s challenge to the rules-based order in the South China Sea when she was Defense Minister. In September, Australia and France discussed the possibility of joint operations in the South China Sea. One may extrapolate future multi-nation joint operations if Washington provides Australia and other allies with sufficient inducement.

In 2013, China declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea where China and Japan both contest sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Former Admiral Harry Harris, former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (renamed the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in late May), expressed his concern about the possibility of a China’s ADIZ in the South China Sea in February 2016. Such a prospect was attributable to China’s unprecedented artificial island construction, military build-up on those man-made outposts and Beijing’s rhetoric. Approximately five months later, Beijing equivocally asserted that an ADIZ in the South China Sea would be possible depending on situation.

However, as Roncevert Ganan Almond argued in The Diplomat two years ago, an ADIZ in the South China Sea would be detrimental to regional stability and “would be misguided as a matter of international law and mistaken as a matter of policy.” Ian Storey opined in 2016 that it would be difficult for China to enforce such a zone because “the facilities on its artificial islands are not yet operational.” Noticeably, the U.S. has repeatedly asserted that it will not recognize an ADIZ in the South China Sea just as it did when China declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea. Japan and Australia also protested at China’s actions. The U.S. sent two B-52 bombers to fly through China’s unilaterally declared ADIZ in November 2013. An ASEAN government source told the author in a private conversation that given latest incidents, “it may be more likely that China would implement this [ADIZ] soon.” Nonetheless, even with advanced missile and radar systems in place, it is doubtful if China will be able to enforce an ADIZ in the South China Sea.

Developments in the South China Sea since June 2018 suggest high level of disagreement among major powers about the free access and use of the maritime area. Western powers are very concerned about the prospect that the South China Sea will de facto turn into ‘Beijing’s lake’. Their reaction will no longer stop at toothless diplomatic protests, but steady operational assertions; not to mention the possibility of joint operations by major powers. That development would create instability in the South China Sea – a scenario that none of the Southeast Asian countries would relish.

An open, stable and peaceful South China Sea is conducive to ASEAN’s dream for economic prosperity. ASEAN states should carefully observe major powers’ dynamics from now until major powers come to terms with each other about acceptable behavior in the South China Sea. It is perhaps one of the most critical moments for ASEAN to prove its central role in regional security issues. Maintaining ASEAN centrality in the South China Sea issue would mean that it keeps facilitating communications among major powers as it has successfully functioned in the last few decades. An important tasking is to come up with a prudent formula for the advent of the new Indo-Pacific geostrategic concept. Indonesia’s push for ASEAN’s joint stance on the Indo-Pacific should be a welcome move as it demonstrates Indonesia’s natural leadership in the Association. Nonetheless, such a formula making should be proceeded with the utmost caution. Because, as Thayer cautions, tensions in the South China Sea will further grow if  Trump himself endorses the remarks made recently by Pence.

China, the United States, and other powers should keep cool heads to deal with disagreements in the South China Sea. China deserves an enhanced role in world politics, given its economic and military might after decades of accumulation. However, its influence should not come at the expense of legitimate rights of others as ingrained in international law for a long time. International reputation matters even if one does not attach great importance to it. On the other hand, it is imperative for the Trump Administration to formulate and then introduce an effective strategy in the South China Sea to shape the behavior of all parties in line with international maritime law. Finally, as Christopher Roberts, director of the National Asian Studies Centre in Australia, has argued, advocates of the rules-based order need to “act together” in order to achieve their aspired outcomes in the South China Sea.

Tuan Anh Luc is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra (UNSW Canberra).