Conflict, not coexistance in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is becoming the epicenter of a whirlwind of escalating territorial and strategic disputes between China and countries in Southeast and East Asia. And increasingly, Beijing’s “winner takes all” approach is turning the South China Sea dispute into a zero sum game.

On March 5, the Chinese government announced that China will increase military spending by 10.7 percent in 2013 to $115.7 billion – building on an unbroken succession of double-digit rises in the defense budget across two decades – to “resolutely uphold China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.”

“China,” reports South China Morning Post, “has publicized its military ambitions with shows of new hardware, including its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet in 2011 and its launch of an aircraft carrier in 2012. Beijing is also building new submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles as part of its naval modernization. Asian neighbors have been nervous about Beijing’s expanding military, and this latest double-digit rise will reinforce disquiet in Japan and Southeast Asia.”

“Beijing’s inability to come to terms with the fact that its ‘China-takes-all’ approach to the dispute will not wash with its regional neighbors and the international community,” write Theresa Fallon of International Relations and Security Network in Zurich, “If the various issues involved in the dispute are to be resolved, claimant states will ultimately have to approach the South China Sea as a maritime commons. China must come to accept that the South China Sea is not its exclusive ‘coastal real estate’ but must instead be parceled out among the various claimants.”

The Philippines, Vietnam and other members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are increasingly viewing their maritime disputes with China through a lens of zero sum game as well. As Roberto Tofani of Asia Times noted, Vietnam’s new Law of the Sea and the Philippines’ recent decision to take its dispute with China in the South China Sea to an international arbitration tribunal “both serve notice to Beijing that its territorial claims in the region will be fiercely disputed.”

In addition to a legal push in the South China Sea and a campaign to internationalize the dispute through the United Nations, another stick in ASEAN’s new strategy is to develop a “minimum deterrence” capability vis-a-vis China. Manila, for instance, has allocated an additional $1.8 billion in defense spending and is set to acquire 12 FA-50 fighter jets, 10 attack helicopters and two anti-submarine helicopters from South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Still, ASEAN states that China’s assertions in the South China Sea are not on a par with Beijing’s military power. Consequently, these countries are looking to Japan and the United States for assistance. Most ASEAN countries, barring Cambodia and Laos, are now leaning toward Japan and the United States.

As Japan’s dispute with China in the East China Sea intensifies, Tokyo is overhauling its strategy in Southeast Asia, from vying for the balance of influence to competing for the balance of power. Japan has backed ASEAN’s ‘minimum deterrence’ strategy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is finalizing his country’s first major military aid bill in recent history, with the Philippines sets to become its most important recipient.

In official statements, Washington claims to be a “neutral observer” in the South China Sea dispute. In fact, however, as Michael Klare of Hampshire College points out, “Washington’s stance is less neutral than it appears and more geared toward violent conflict than talking it out.”

Although President Obama has insisted, according to Professor Klare, that his pivot to Asia “was not intended to punish or contain China, it is hard to view it as anything else. And, as China did earlier in the decade, the U.S. has been backing up its words with military strength. It has promised additional arms aid and military training to allies that have since shown greater assertiveness in the island disputes. At the same time, the United States has increased the frequency and scale of its naval exercises in the region – usually in partnership with longtime allies such as Japan and the Philippines but also with former foe Vietnam.”

As the United States is heading back to the South China Sea and tensions are mounting between China and Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, any rash action or “innocent” incident by any one of the players can lead to war. In the year ahead, expect confrontation and conflict, not peaceful coexistence, to reign in the South China Sea.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.