Court cases and arms races: just how bad could things get in the South China Sea?

End of US ban on arms sales to Vietnam came at a sensitive time in lead-up to international tribunal ruling on Philippines’ case against China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 June, 2016, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 June, 2016, 2:05am

The tensions in the South China Sea took a new twist last month when Washington and Hanoi forged closer military ties during US President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Vietnam.

Obama’s decision to end a decades-old embargo on arms sales to Vietnam looks set to accelerate an already intense arms race in Southeast Asia and further complicate the situation in the South China Sea, analysts say.

Although Obama insisted the move was not aimed at China and new Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc pledged not to pursue militarisation, all signs seem to point to the contrary.

All signs show that Vietnam is also playing a diplomatic balancing act between China and the US
Huang Jing, National University of Singapore

Analysts say the US and Southeast Asian nations appear keen to gain leverage to counter China’s assertive diplomatic and military posture ahead of a key international court ruling on China’s expansive claims to the disputed waters.

Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said defence ties between the US and former foe Vietnam were thawing at a sensitive time in the long-standing territorial disputes in the hotly contested waters. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague is expected to hand down rulings within weeks on a case brought by the Philippines against China.

“It opens the door to closer military cooperation between the US and Vietnam and will bolster Vietnam’s capacity to challenge China in the South China Sea,” he said. “The highly symbolic step is part of Washington’s strategy to beef up its coalition across the Pacific and Indian Oceans against China.”

Professor Huang Jing, a Sino-US relations specialist at the National University of Singapore, said revoking the ban on arms sales was another pivotal move by the US to enlist Vietnam and tilt the balance of power in the region towards Washington.

“All signs show that Vietnam is also playing a diplomatic balancing act between China and the US,” he said. “It tries to use its tensions with China to gain support from the US and use its warming ties with the US to gain leverage in its future dealings with China.”

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Analysts are concerned that maritime disputes have led to the escalation of an arms race in the region, driving China and rival claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, to invest heavily in naval and air forces to help defend their competing claims.

A recent study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed a sizeable military build-up in the region over the past few years amid heightened tensions. While the Philippines is weighing up whether to invest in its first submarine fleet, Vietnam has become one of the world’s most active arms importers, with imports growing 699 per cent between 2011 and last year, when they accounted for roughly 3 per cent of global arms purchases.

Indonesian navy fires shots, seizes Chinese fishing boat near disputed South China Sea

Some analysts say the international tribunal’s ruling, widely expected to go against China, is likely to encourage other rival claimants, such as Vietnam, to follow the example of the Philippines and take their overlapping claims to the tribunal.

Daniel Chua, a Southeast Asian diplomacy expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said other nations looked set to use a similar strategy to counter China’s passive aggression in the maritime disputes.

Apparently that’s something Beijing also worries about. Xu Hong, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s treaty and law department, warned at a briefing last month that if other nations followed the example of the Philippines, “it could open a Pandora’s box of similar abusive lawsuits” and pose a grave danger to international maritime order.

But Huang said Vietnam was unlikely to take its claims to the Permanent Court of Arbitration because it had its own territorial disputes with the Philippines. “The last thing Vietnam wants is the Philippines using the international court to settle their dispute,” he said. “And more importantly, if Vietnam brings the case ... its relations with China will reach the point of no return. Neither Beijing nor Hanoi want to burn their bridges.”

Some analysts even express concern that the impending tribunal ruling may further exacerbate animosity and tensions between China and its Asian neighbours, despite their close trade ties, and push their standoff towards a final showdown. Even more worryingly, amid signs of growing strategic rivalry, they note that China and the US are obsessed with muscle-flexing while accusing each other of provocations and fanning tensions.

G7’S softened stance on East and South China seas welcomed

Several analysts also say China’s unrestrained use of its military and economic power contradicts its promise of a peaceful rise.

The South China Sea was now a field full of contention and possible clashes, said Professor Kerry Brown, a Chinese studies specialist at King’s College in London.

“It is a question of just how far China thinks it can push things without there being escalation,” he said. “That depends on how well they read the commitment of the US and how much they understand where the bottom line is. They could easily misjudge that.”

While major conflicts are highly unlikely, with both China and the US wary of direct conflict, analysts say the possibility of mishaps and minor accidents, especially scuffles involving fishing ships, cannot be ruled out.

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“For example, if the PCA decision finds in favour of the right of Philippine fishermen to fish near Scarborough Shoal and the Philippine government sends navy ships to enforce the ruling, that could provoke a Chinese response and a possible skirmish,” said Dr Bonnie Glaser, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. A small-scale conflict was also possible if China again tried to drill for oil or gas in Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone.

Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert at the University of the Philippines, said a worst-case scenario between the Philippines and China would include some kind of incident at sea that had the potential to escalate, given China’s maritime ambitions and assertive behaviour in reclaiming islands and ramping up military patrols.

Chua recalled that China fought Vietnam in the Paracels in the 1970s, and almost came to blows with the Philippines in the Spratlys in the mid-1990s and 2012. “The worst case scenario is really difficult to determine,” he said.

But Dai Bingguo, a former Chinese State Councillor, said in a speech in March that he was confident that the so-called “Thucydides Trap”, the rivalry between a rising power and the ruling power, was not “an insurmountable, iron-clad law”. He said China and the US would be able to guarantee there would be no conflicts between them. “We cannot forge a cold war, let alone forge a hot war,” he said.

China aims for deeper regional military ties in bid for stability in South China Sea

Zhu Zhiqun, of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the tensions were unlikely to escalate further as neither China nor the US wanted confrontation in the South China Sea.

“I think both the US and China have done enough posturing to satisfy their allies and domestic audiences respectively,” he said. “They will both want to lower the temperature [through bilateral and multilateral platforms].”

Huang said tensions were unlikely to go away any time soon and a minor, accidental conflict was still possible, so it remained to be seen if China and the US could set aside their differences and join hands in controlling the situation.

“Crisis management does not necessarily mean averting a crisis,” he said. “Rather, it is more about the ability to minimise the risk of escalation in the event of a crisis.”