Is a new cold war brewing over the South China Sea?
Michal Thim warns that the spats may harden into a stand-off – with China on one side and the US and the rest of the region on the other – that will be difficult to break
Held in Singapore every year since 2002, the Shangri-La Dialogue has become one of the – if not the – most anticipated security-related events in Asia. The dialogue owes its prestige to high-level government representation, regularly bringing together defence ministers from inside and outside the region, allowing for bilateral and multilateral meetings on the side of the official conference agenda.
Unsurprisingly, the dialogue has been dominated in recent years by a single issue: the South China Sea dispute. The speed and scale of China’s island reclamation in disputed waters that has taken place since last year’s meeting and the US countermoves in the form of freedom of navigation operations meant that its 15th iteration was no exception.
For all the glittering international presence, most attention has naturally been given to speeches by US Defence Secretary Ash Carter and head of the Chinese delegation Admiral Sun Jianguo (孫建國), the deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission.
If there is one thing that the dialogue will be remembered for, it is a new term, “principled security network”, coined by Carter. He used it to describe the existing multilayered web of alliances, partnerships and initiatives spanning Japan to India, and in this respect he was not pointing out something particularly new. But the emphasis on principles was remarkable. Carter used the words “principles” and “principled” 36 times in his address. He also stressed that a “principled security network” is inclusive, open to any nation and military wishing to take part.
Moreover, he pointed out what should be obvious to everyone in the region: Beijing’s actions create anxiety among its neighbours. “As a result, China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation,” said Carter.
Suggestions that Beijing is isolating itself through its actions in the South China Sea did not go down well with the Chinese delegation. Sun retorted that “we were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now and we will not be isolated in the future”. He also added that China does not create trouble, but, also, it does not fear it. Some of these words were surely meant for the domestic audience in China, but overall there was little room for manoeuvre in between the lines of Sun’s address.
Is China isolating itself? The simple answer is “yes” but it is more complicated than that. Carter and Sun are both right. China is isolating itself in the region. And yet, it will never reach the levels that China experienced in the not-so-distant past. In fact, the consequences will probably foster the current status quo, and Beijing appears willing to pay that price.
Carter is right because it is mostly Beijing’s actions that compel its neighbours to embrace the US’ role as a pre-eminent security actor in the region – whether it is Beijing’s decision to use the so-called “nine-dash line” map in 2009, its rapid building of military outposts across the South China Sea, or the incursion of the Chinese coast guard in Indonesian waters near Natuna Island in March.
The most obvious case of a state becoming a strong advocate of the US presence in the region is Vietnam. The recent removal of the US arms sale embargo is an example of the flourishing relationship. However, a much more interesting case is the host of the Shangri-La Dialogue: Singapore. Granted, Singapore has been an important US partner for a long time. Nevertheless, its leaders have elevated the balancing between Washington and Beijing to an art form. Yet, even Singapore has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of Beijing’s behaviour and has called for the US security role to be preserved.
However, Sun is also right in dismissing the notion that China will become isolated. Beijing’s actions suggest it is no longer in the business of making friends in the region; it does not need them. China’s maritime claims to what it says is rightfully Chinese territory have pitted it against most of its maritime neighbours. It could either get what it wants or strike a compromise to foster friendship. Beijing has clearly chosen the former. The question now is how it will seek to control the cost.
The isolation that Carter talks about is nothing but the slow process of formalising the political realignment in the region, a creation of a US-led group of China’s neighbours. This may look like China versus the rest of the region. However, Beijing can be fairly confident that a “principled security network” will not transform into a collective security monolith akin to Nato in Europe. Beijing’s choice of action will be opportunistic, poking holes in the network any time the opportunity arises.
Other than that, how can China possibly be isolated? Trade blockades were difficult to implement even before the emergence of the globalised economy. China faced blockades and isolation during the 1950s and 1960s and spent the following decades ensuring that it would become too big economically to be cast aside. Moreover, Beijing’s global dealings mean it will always find supportive voices in the international arena. South and northeast Asia may not be Beijing’s friends but it is unlikely they will all become outright enemies.
On a bilateral, US-China, level, it is becoming clear that the disagreement is over principles and won’t go away despite occasional declarations of shared interests. Beijing simply cannot expect Washington to trade away its regional partnerships and leave the region as Beijing’s sphere of influence, all for the sake of bettering the complex strategic partnership between the two great powers. Neither can Washington expect Beijing to adjust its behaviour by respecting US interests, and those of its old and new partners. The region is slowly but surely settling into a stand-off that will be hard to break. Time will tell whether we are heading into a new type of cold war.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Prague-based think tank, Association for International Affairs, and a member of the Centre for International Maritime Security