Between Rocks and a Hard Place

Simon Bayley

Wrangling over the resource-rich and trade route territories of the South China Sea (SCS) has gone on for decades. Rarely so substantial as to result in anything more than hollow victory and saccharine multilateral compact, altercations between the various claimants have failed to ignite any real moves towards resolution. Although ostensibly a forward move in an increasingly contested SCS, the Philippines’ decision to take what it regards as ‘unlawful‘ Chinese intrusions to a tribunal under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) will similarly fail to prove a definitive step towards territorial reconciliation.

China claims ‘indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the SCS and adjacent waters’ and there is no precedent, whether at land or sea, for international arbitration resolving Chinese territorial disputes. Both may be signatories to UNCLOS, but Manila will know that squabbling over historic, geographic or economic entitlement is of little interest to Beijing. Indeed preferring to conduct territorial negotiations bilaterally, China claims the Philippines has simply ‘complicated’ the matter. Moreover, the tribunal has no powers to enforce its decision were it simply ignored. So why call for it?

China's claim of 'indisputable sovereignty' stretches deep into the South China Sea.

China’s claim of ‘indisputable sovereignty’ stretches deep into the South China Sea. Photo Source: David Rosenberg, southchinasea.org

Notwithstanding national pride, resources no doubt play a part. Regional sensitivity currently impedes testing the feasibility of their extraction, however a reported $35tn dollars-worth of undersea gas and oil deposits lie in an area arguably designated by UNCLOS as the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). More bounties are suspected. The area also remains an important shipping thoroughfare and provides rich fishing grounds. Following China’s underhanded acquisition unilateral establishment of a prefecture to administer it contentious SCS territories and the announcement that it intends to survey for resources within spitting distance of the Filipino littoral, a legal challenge might temporarily suppress Chinese advances over these valuable seas. However when viewed in terms of the wider recalibration of global power centres, an equally, if not more compelling sub-text is nuclear.

Possessing a credible sea-based deterrent is a Chinese military priority. The launch of JL-2 ballistic missile equipped Type 094 SSBNs is a major step, but the Chinese Navy (PLAN) faces three major operational challenges before they fully supplement Chinese nuclear strategy: diminishing the potential for detection; PLAN training; and maintaining command and control. Integral to the utility of the Type 094s, overcoming these challenges is best done closer to home, where the operational competences of the second-strike force can be more readily and, most importantly, securely developed.

China's credible deterrent demands credible protection. Image: Military-Today.com.

China’s credible deterrent demands credible protection. Image credit: Military-Today.com.

One commentator argues that Chinese activity in the SCS echoes Russian establishment of a safe haven in the Sea of Okhotsk during the Cold War. Like the Kuril Islands, the rocky footholds in Filipino seas provide not only air and sea bases for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities, but access to deeper waters for attack submarines to counter adversarial anti-submarine operations. Chinese garrisons are planned on contested islands and while some may regard the threat of such militarization as overblown, the utility of the Type 094s is an overriding Chinese strategic concern. The Russians deployed a Kiev-class aircraft carrier and over 200 submarine and surface vessels to protect their insurance force. Although a very different era, it’s reasonable to assume that the Type 094s will motivate the Chinese, their counter-claimants and interested extra-regional powers to also buttress the national interest at sea.

Washington has emphasized its ‘national interest’ in freedom of navigation and will be roiled by the introduction of new Chinese legislation which does not definitively rule out maritime interference in the SCS. To counter China’s off-limits strategy, it has deployed two combat ships in Singapore and is pressing for an ‘Incidents at Sea’ agreement. Although China has refused such an agreement and continues to deny the US the diplomatic space to directly undermine its ambitions, unease over Chinese intent has enabled the US to supplement its pivot strategy with a wider portfolio of Asian allies. Its growing traction with countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as older allies like South Korea, the Philippines, Japan and Australia means that America increasingly influences a network of assets seeking to counter-act Chinese territorial expansion. These countries are also increasingly looking to expand their maritime forces independently, some specifically with undersea anti-access in mind.

Expected by several regional countries to hedge against Chinese dominance, India has announced that unless its oil exploration interests come under threat, it has no interest in SCS disputes. Even so, and while more concerned with maintaining primacy over China in the Indian Ocean, India’s ‘Look East’ policy has long intimated a desire for greater influence in the Asia-Pacific. Given the growing rivalry, India will almost certainly strengthen ties with Chinese counter-claimants and their allies in a bid to help keep Beijing in check.

Ultimately however, no power will be willing to go toe-to-toe with China without serious provocation. As they consolidate at the margins, hoping to stifle the Chinese advance, it’s a safe bet that China will continue to use its national power to drive a hard bargain in the SCS and shield itself from the influence of external actors. As this game plays out, and short of engaging their own military forces, there are no obvious options for states like the Philippines but to attempt to harden global opinion towards China with measures like the UNCLOS tribunal. Signaling for deeper strategic co-ordination between Chinese counter-claimants and interested extra-regional powers is therefore not necessarily bold move. It simply prefaces a watershed in regional relations which given contrary interests between China and most Pacific nations over resources and, perhaps most importantly Chinese nuclear strategy, remains, as previously, yet to be reached or diminished.

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