Deterrence and Inclusivity in the South China Sea

Image by Livewireshock

Rapid economic growth and the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has allowed China to expand its regional influence. Within the South China Sea, China’s expansion has materialized in the form of a coercive maritime strategy. Aside from straddling the key sea lanes of communication used for trade, the South China Sea also contains sizable reservoirs of natural resources. Territorial disputes in the area have frayed diplomatic relations between China and other regional claimants, notably Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The effects of China’s more aggressive strategy on freedom of navigation and regional power dynamics have concerned U.S. officials. Rather than contain Chinese expansion, analysts at the RAND Corporation believe a policy of engagement that stresses inclusivity towards China could ease rising tensions. 

A shift in the traditional U.S.-Chinese power-balance underpins disputes around the South China Sea. During Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. government ‘pivoted’ its foreign policy towards Asia. China threatens the status quo by taking unilateral actions against countries within the U.S. sphere of influence. Chinese officials, however, regard Western interference in Asia as intrusive, a stance reminiscent of America’s strategy with the Monroe Doctrine, where the U.S. discouraged European interference in South and Central America.

China has successfully relied on an assertive foreign policy to expand its maritime influence in the South China Sea. Despite rulings by the international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague, China has continued implementing a coercive strategy against both Vietnam and the Philippines to defend its sovereignty claims. The Chinese navy has effectively seized control of Scarborough Shoal and continues to deny Philippine fisherman access to the disputed Spratly Islands. Likewise, Chinese coast guards have attacked Vietnamese fishermen and purportedly sunk Vietnamese fishing boats operating in the contested Paracel Islands. To consolidate its claims within the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, China has built military installations on artificial islands. Faced with China’s more belligerent approach, the challenge for the U.S. has been determining how to react without escalating the conflict.

A central topic of the 2019 RAND conference on the U.S.-Japan alliance in Santa Monica was the revival of interest in ‘the Quad‘, a loose grouping of maritime democracies consisting of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia. Interest in the Quad first gained traction in 2015 when Singapore called for greater inclusivity by inviting China to participate. The alliance would work closely to realize the shared aspiration of creating a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first advocated viewing the Indo-Pacific as a single theater in 2007, arguing that enhanced connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans would boost economic prosperity. The South China Sea, along with its major shipping routes, plays a pivotal role in connecting the two oceans. Under the Quad, the four nations would work together to improve stability, prosperity, and security within the Indo-Pacific Theater. The creation of the Quad, however, led to protests by officials in Beijing, who believed the main purpose of a united maritime front is to contain China.

Contrary to Beijing’s suspicions, a recurring theme has been the emphasis on inclusivity in shaping Indo-Pacific foreign policy. Admiral Scott Swift, the former Pacific fleet commander,  and Avril Haines, the former U.S.  deputy national security advisor, agreed that governments need to focus on including China in foreign policy initiatives instead of struggling to contain its rise. “We tend to focus on our differences with China”, explained Swift, “but we have so much more in common.” Capitalizing on the benefits of economic exchanges and joint infrastructure projects is one strategy to drive relationships with China. For example, the Quad may be used to support regional initiatives like the multi-billion dollar electric-power and internet infrastructure program in Papua New Guinea and Japan’s development plans for the Asia-Africa maritime corridor. Including China on the projects, or at last actively engaging with Beijing diplomatically throughout the process, would help dispel misconceptions about the Quad’s purpose.

“Resisting China is not realistic,” notes Naoko Funatsu of the Japan Institute of International Affairs. In the context of Sino-Japanese relations, Funatsu believes both the Quad and development strategies like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could strengthen international cooperation. By expressing a cautious interest in participating in China’s BRI program while encouraging Chinese involvement in the Quad, Japan is seeking ways of preventing diplomatic polarization.

Despite stressing long-term inclusivity, regional actors have still opted to take a firm stance against China’s more coercive policies. By adopting an aggressive force posture during the Doklam crisis and the East China Sea disputes, India and Japan, respectively, prevented China from making territorial gains. Within the South China Sea, the U.S military has conducted naval exercises with allied nations and participated in Freedom of Navigation operations. The muted response from Beijing to the exercises has hampered China’s ability to claim sole jurisdiction of disputed territories, encouraging South China Sea claimants like Vietnam to find their voice.

The modernization of the PLA, however, may jeopardize the ’ long-term ability of the U.S. to exert pressure solely through military means. The PLA navy (PLAN) alone has made huge strides, both in numbers of warships produced and the technical level of on-board systems. Instead of struggling against China’s rise, the analysis from RAND suggests that states in the region should encourage a policy of engagement that stresses inclusivity. Allowing China greater involvement in the Quad creates opportunities for equal representation while assuaging China’s fears. The success of the strategic emphasis on engagement will largely depend, though, on whether the policies of short-term deterrence and long-term inclusivity can be reconciled. 

Image courtesy of Livewireshock [CC BY-SA 3.0]


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About Michael Van Ginkel

Michael van Ginkel earned his master’s degree in conflict studies from the University of Glasgow, UK after receiving his bachelor's degree from Emory University, USA. He further developed his specialism in conflict analysis by conducting research on the Balkans, both through a Cuttino scholarship and a Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry fellowship. His current research focuses specifically on in the Indo-Pacific Theater.

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