The Jerusalem Post
Unless China is confronted, conflict is a matter of when, not if
China has risen as a major economic and military power on global stage and with it many disputes particularly in South China Sea and East China Sea have also intensified. China has announced its arrival by escalating territorial disputes with neighboring smaller states and has laid claims of sovereignty over numerous features (such as rock protrusions, reefs and artificial islands) in East China and South China Sea. The disputes have intensified over the period of time and with every passing day it is becoming evident that the conflict is a matter of when not if.
The disputes are a major threat to peace in the South China Sea. China has been using the tactics of deploying maritime militia disguised as fishermen to fuel the ongoing territorial disputes. Both sovereignty disputes and disputes over sovereign jurisdiction (over maritime zones and resources) are equally dangerous and have potential of leading the subcontinent towards a dreadful and bloody war.
Sovereignty disputes can only be settled by the agreement of parties to the dispute. Article 33 on the Charter of the United Nations states, “The parties to any dispute… shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.”
Disputes over sovereign jurisdiction can be settled directly by the parties concerned or by international arbitration that is mutually agreeable. State parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea can make a claim to have their case resolved by binding dispute settlement.
These disputes in reality cannot be settled in the near foreseeable future partly because of the power imbalance and partly because the parties claim indisputable sovereignty over the features. Public opinion in these countries is also rallied for the support of indisputable sovereignty.
The factor of the power imbalance however can be overcome by what international relations specialists call “self-help,” i.e. building up and modernizing their armed forces for self-defense and to deter an adversary. Nations can also ally with other states to share the burden of protecting national sovereignty.
Current disputes in the South China Sea could be managed through a legally binding and enforceable Code of Conduct ratified by all states in dispute or through a balance of power in which a coalition of like-minded states bands together to maintain
the peace. The coalition will bring to the table the required human capital investment and enhanced military capability.
THE MAJOR powers – like Japan with itself being a stakeholder – can play a significant role in arriving at a realizable solution to disputes. Japan currently administers the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea over which China asserts a claim to sovereignty. Japan’s strategic interests are to maintain a peaceful regional security environment, especially on the Korean peninsula where North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Japan’s strategic interests include maintaining a robust alliance with the United States in order to protect freedom of navigation and overflight, lawful commerce and Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku. Japan is also a treaty ally of the US that has declared the treaty covers the Senkaku Islands.
Japan has chosen to develop modern self-defense forces and a coast guard to secure its interests. Japan has the ability to use its Coast Guard to push back against repeated Chinese incursions around the Senkaku Islands.
The strategic interests of Japan in South China and East China Sea should be the driving force for building a coalition of like-minded states. Over time, Japanese leaders have reinterpreted Article 9 of the Constitution so that Japan can gradually play a greater role in contributing to regional security. Japan thus contributes to building up the maritime capacities of the Philippines and Vietnam.
Japan has a stake in defending its sovereignty
and in maintaining alliance with the US. Japan’s stake is existential; in order to preserve its sovereignty and prevent its subordination to China it must build up sufficient self-defense forces to deter China while securing ironclad US guarantees to come to Japan’s assistance if it is menaced by China.
China’s stake is to overcome the century of humiliation of the colonial era and become the hegemonic power in East Asia by disrupting the network of US alliances and getting the US to retreat from the area. This urge to become the hegemonic power has led to undue confrontation with the other states like Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia occupy land features (rocks) in the South China Sea. They have a stake in the preservation of international law and in the status quo so they can exploit and develop the marine resources in their Exclusive Economic Zones.
Brunei is transitioning its economy and China has stepped in to invest in Brunei to assist this transition. Brunei’s economic well-being and autonomy are at stake. Brunei thus joins Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia in stressing the importance of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) centrality and dialogue as the means of managing relations with China.
THE POSSIBILITY of armed conflict between China and its neighbors is low because China pursues a strategy of using “gray-zone tactics,” i.e. intimidation and bullying by its Coast Guard, maritime militia and fishing fleet that fall below the threshold of armed force.
However, China’s use of lawfare has entered an uncertain period with the promulgation of its Law on the China Coast Guard authorizing the use of armed force and destruction of facilities constructed by claimant states in specified circumstances. An outbreak of armed conflict would be short in duration and China would prevail due to its preponderance of force.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have all adopted a low military posture to mitigate the likelihood of armed conflict. All of these countries welcome a US presence but none wants to be forced to pick sides.
There is growing consensus among government and strategic analysts that the prospect of war between China and the US is increasing. The Australian Department of Defense, 2020 Defense Strategic Update issued in July 2020, assessed that “Major power competition, coercion and military modernization are increasing the potential for and consequences of miscalculation. While still unlikely, the prospect of high-intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific, is less remote than at the time of the 2016 Defense White Paper, including high-intensity conflict between the United States and China.”
More recently, in March 2021, then-Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Phillip Davidson stated in remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I worry that they’re [China’s] accelerating their ambition to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rulesbased international order… by 2050. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”
China has so militarized its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea that if conflict suddenly broke out with the United States, any US Navy warship in the South China Sea, including a floating expeditionary base ship – like the recently commissioned USS Miquel Keith – would be at risk. In order to counter the growing power imbalance and to subvert the chances of potential conflict in South China Sea, the coalition of all like-minded nations strong enough to do so is the need of the hour.
The writer is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales. He is a Southeast Asia regional specialist who taught at the Australian Defense Force Academy, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Australian Command and Staff College and Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College.