The tussle over South China Sea
Defence ministers and military chiefs of the Asia-Pacific region were in Singapore from June 3-5, 2016 for the 15th session of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). Organised by the London based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the Asia Security Summit is a highly rated "Track One" inter-governmental forum, which brings together 28 countries from Asia, Europe and America.
Over 600 delegates converged at the Shangri-La Hotel, from where the dialogue got its name. Participants spent a busy time at the plenary and break-out group meetings, which allowed in-depth discussions on critical regional security issues.
The three-day conclave was inaugurated by Thailand's Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha. The large Chinese delegation was led by Admiral Sun Jianquo, Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department of China's Central Military Commission. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter led the American delegation, which included Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and six other senators.
However, China's assertive activities in the South China Sea became the single most important topic of discussion at the plenary. The US and Japan have been contesting China's sovereignty claim over the area. The dispute is basically over the "freedom of navigation" in the high seas, meaning the South China Sea, which is now a theatre of major-power rivalry.
China occupied several rocks in the South China Sea, and started to convert them in 2014 into artificial islands. It built an air field and stationed fighter aircrafts and missiles in one island. Beijing says that it has historical evidence that the sea was within its jurisdiction for centuries. But littoral states – Brunei, Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines also claim sovereignty over certain parts of the sea. The 3.6 million square kilometre area is rich in marine resources and vast oil and gas reserves, and international trade worth more than $5 trillion pass through the South China Sea every year.
The US is not directly involved in the dispute, but as part of Washington's "Asian Pivot", it rejects the Chinese claim, stating that the South China Sea hosts vital global shipping lanes, and has called upon China to respect international law. US Navy ships and aircrafts in the area were challenged by China.
What is worrying for the Americans is that China is planning to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. The ADIZ will prohibit military aircrafts from any others country patrolling over the area. China can also declare the area as its Exclusive Economic Zone, which can restrict commercial shipping and over-flights over the area.
Philippines has already challenged China's claim over SCS and referred the matter to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. China stated that it did not recognise the court's jurisdiction over the matter, while a ruling from the court is expected soon.
In an attempt to beleaguer China, the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter called upon Asia Pacific countries to build a "principled security network" – meaning a series of partnerships that adheres to values and facilitates resource-sharing. He further warned that China was erecting a "Great Wall of self-isolation". "The United States is fully committed to this principled security network," he said.
Taking a tough stand, Admiral Sun Jianguo said that China did not "make or fear trouble". "We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now and we will not be isolated in the future . . . some people and countries are still looking at China with Cold War mentality and prejudice. They may build a wall in their minds and end up isolating themselves", said the admiral.
What is noteworthy is that participating members quietly declined to get involved in the US- China spat. ASEAN delegates did not even criticise China. Keeping in mind that China is part of the ASEAN Defence Minister's Meeting-Plus (ADMM+), Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan while reflecting on Asean sentiments skilfully called for "an inclusive strategic architecture . . . mutual respect that all countries . . . pursue peaceful resolution of conflicts within a rules-based order."
Interestingly, while Aston Carter was blowing hot at China in Singapore, a smiling John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, landed in Beijing for the annual high-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue (June 6-8, 2016) with China.
Indeed, China-US relations are vast and complicated. Had it not been for its inordinate economic dependence on China, which limits America's options against the country, Washington would have imposed strict sanctions against Beijing. China is the largest creditor of US ($ 1.26 trillion - 2015) and bilateral trade aggregates over $600 billion (2015). If China offloads even a part of US government securities, the US economy will be in deep trouble.
On the other hand, China's trade ($ 366 billion, 2014) and vast investments in ASEAN also discouraged these countries from taking any strong anti-China posture, as they are also an important partner of China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Besides, China has embarked on separate deals with ASEAN members to neutralise their claims over the South China Sea. Europe's courtship for Chinese investment also deters Europeans from going head-on against Beijing.
Although the US is irked with China's assertive role in East Asia, it is in fact alone in this tussle. Actually instead of confrontation with China, Secretary Carter and his senators tried to develop a strategy to contain China.
The Shangri-La Dialogue has once again demonstrated that China is a major world power. It is determined to assert its economic strength and military power in its immediate neighbourhood and extend its maritime boundary as far out as possible. Beijing will use tact and diplomacy to stay in the South China Sea, irrespective of the PCA verdict. As nations grow stronger, their security fears grow concomitantly.
The main idea of the Shangri-La dialogue series is to develop a regional security framework for the Asia-Pacific region, like the one in Europe. But thus far, these conferences have not produced any tangible decision on how best to address security issues of the region.
The writer is a former ambassador and secretary.