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17 November 2016, Gateway House

South China Sea: more trouble

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to sever ties with the United States, a declaration that has elicited much skepticism. The West Pacific is in for some realigning of relationships if he makes good on this threat.

former Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies

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Rodrigo Duterte, the recently elected president of the Philippines, has further roiled the already troubled waters of the South China Sea by all manner of bombastic statements, including his declaration of a ‘separation’ from the United States, while being hosted by President Xi Jinping in Beijing in October. It is not yet apparent, however, whether his statements will have a more serious impact than mere verbosity.

Since his voluble visit to China in October, and further grandstanding during a subsequent tour to Tokyo, where he proclaimed his intention to banish the U.S. military presence from the Philippines, President Duterte has backtracked to some degree, and not initiated any formal process for achieving his stated objectives. There is already a fair degree of scepticism in both Beijing and Washington about his intentions and his ability to deliver.

At the moment, Duterte has only created a stir, without really shaking up the region. At home, the Philippine President is extremely popular on account of his successful anti-drug campaign and unconventional leadership style. But he does preside over a populace that is still remarkably pro-American and has strong people-to-people ties with the United States.

Should Duterte follow through on his threat to sever ties with the United States, the West Pacific is certainly in for some stormy weather. On the one hand, China’s recent aggressive and militaristic behaviour in the South China Sea has led to a strengthening of bilateral ties between some of its anxious smaller neighbours, such as Vietnam, and the United States, as they seek to restrain Beijing’s adventurism. On the other hand, the Philippine example may catalyse the capitulation of the smaller nations of the ASEAN–at least in spirit–to China, leading to rival power blocks in this contentious region.

All this is a direct result of China’s success, at least as of now, in altering the status quo in the South China Sea, despite the considerable U.S. naval presence in the region, and in disregard of the United Nations Conference on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS)-based judgement against Beijing’s actions by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

The Obama administration, for its part, has been reluctant to embroil itself in a military confrontation with Beijing in its last few months over a situation not yet directly affecting the United States’ core national interests. It has instead attempted to fashion an informal coalition of concerned nations of the broader region, such as Japan, Australia, India, and even Indonesia, to act as a deterrent to China’s aggressive expansionism. In the eyes of the smaller nations in the region, China indeed seemed to have won, at least for the time being.

Much now depends on the decisions and actions of the Trump Administration. A coherent action plan on the West Pacific will take at least a few months more, by which time the present troubled situation in the South China Sea may well have become the new normal.

This means that China will continue to cock a snook at the provisions of UNCLOS and international law, while establishing itself even more firmly in the South China Sea through enhanced maritime activity and continuing infrastructure building. Having now got Manila on its side, Beijing is unlikely to provoke the Philippines by infrastructure building on the Scarborough Shoal, situated barely 125 miles from Subic Bay in Luzon.

Nor is it likely to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea since it is now in China’s interest to allow the status quo to prevail.

Action by other powers, including the United States, Japan and India, may be limited to freedom of navigation operations by solitary warships and overflights by military aircraft, with the occasional deployment of larger taskforces. Perhaps that is better than a full-fledged confrontation, leading to military conflict.

The most significant response will be Japan’s. Given that Moscow has now aligned itself to Beijing, especially in the South China Sea, where the navies of both nations undertook manoeuvres recently, Tokyo’s reaction to the new alignment could have a major impact on the region. Japan’s basic economic well-being and energy security are most critically dependent on a peaceful South China Sea. The events of the last few years and the possibility of total Chinese domination over waters directly linked to its core interests may propel Tokyo into directions hitherto considered far-fetched, including remilitarisation and the nuclear option. North Korean antics would only serve to hasten such decisions.

New Delhi’s position on the South China Sea disputes has been consistent, emphasising the centrality of the tenets of the UNCLOS for both maritime governance and peaceful conflict resolution. As Prime Minister Modi reiterated to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last week, India continues to advocate respecting the right of all nations to freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded commerce in the maritime commons.

As for the United States, the South China Sea imbroglio calls into question Pax Americana, which has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War and which resulted in the rapid growth of trade and wealth in the entire East Asian region. As China challenges the status quo, and plays hardball, United States President-Elect Trump will have to be both nimble-footed, as well as resolute, to ensure that China’s recent actions do not herald the beginning of America’s decline as a Pacific power.

Conversely, President Xi Jingping runs the risk of imperial over-reach and delusions of great power status–without having actually earned that rank yet. Any setback in the South China Sea will almost surely increase internal dissent, and  both he and his country will have to pay the price of disregarding international law and world opinion. Either way, miscalculation by any of the major powers with stakes in the South China Sea, will result in unforeseeable consequences.

Vice Admiral Anil Chopra is Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies, Gateway House. He was the former Commander- in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, the Eastern Naval Command, and former Chief of the Indian Coast Guard.

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