Sunday, January 11, 2015

EXPECT more political wrangling and run-ins over maritime disputes in the South China Sea this year as China and the US continue to jostle for regional influence

Last year was not a good year for international relations on the South China Sea. In fact, one could argue that the conflicting interests became the primary security issue in Southeast Asia. This year is unlikely to be better and could be worse.

Flux is integral to international relations and that describes the political situation in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. China - which aspires to be the dominant regional power - is trying to build positive relations with neighbours and fellow claimants to disputed territories, and also with the US, which currently dominates the region.

The tone and tenor of the China-US relationship affects the political climate. But it is not clear that either is willing or able to make the compromises that a peaceful coexistence requires - let alone a relationship in which cooperation outpaces competition. In China's view, the US wants to continue the status quo, maintaining, and enhancing, its cold war "hub and spoke" alliance system and presence. With the US "pivot", the South China Sea is becoming a cockpit of China-US rivalry for dominance in the region.

In particular, despite their November memorandum of understanding regarding "rules of behaviour" for unplanned military air and ship encounters, more incidents are likely.

The problem is that these encounters are not unplanned, but purposeful probes and intercepts designed to send a message. China will continue to challenge US naval intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance vessels and aircraft, as well as drones operating on, under and over China's "near seas".

The US believes China is developing a strategy to control the near seas and prevent access in the event of a conflict - say, between Beijing and Taipei. The US response is the air-sea battle concept, intended to cripple China's command, control, communications, intelligence and surveillance systems. So, attempts to negotiate preventative measures are unlikely to make much progress.

There is also likely to be little progress in negotiating a robust code of conduct between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China. China believes other claimants to disputed territories are violating the non-binding declaration on conduct by not negotiating the issues directly with Beijing and instead "internationalising" them. Until they do so, China is unlikely to yield.

The arbitration panel hearing the Philippine complaint against China may render a verdict this year - at least on whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case - and if it decides it does, tensions will rise. China will continue to officially ignore the process and increase pressure on the Philippines and Vietnam to negotiate with it directly.

Regardless of the outcome, the Philippines and Vietnam will continue to appeal for Asean's support, and the US will continue its tacit backing for their position. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar will probably still demur on the matter. Indonesia may begin to exercise some leadership within Asean and attempt to bridge the gaps. It will be interesting to see how Malaysia - not exactly a neutral party - will "lead" Asean on this issue as the 2015 chair. Intra-Asean maritime disputes will remain unresolved and could even resurface as stresses and strains undermine unity.

In short, 2015 is likely to bring more of the same for the South China Sea: isolated but potentially serious incidents, political wrangling and megaphone diplomacy. There may be an acceleration of the evolution of pro-US and pro-China factions both within Asean and within individual member countries like Vietnam. Certainly, China and the US will continue to enhance their economic, political and military presence in the region.

In the longer term, there are several ways the political imbroglio could unfold. In perhaps a worst-case scenario for Asean, the US-China rivalry would feed upon itself, exacerbated by domestic nationalists in both countries but particularly in the US in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The South China Sea disputes would fester and tensions would wax and wane. Proxy domestic and inter-state conflict would become the "new normal". International oil companies would shy away from the disputed areas.

A preferred scenario for Asean would be one in which a robust binding code of conduct is agreed with China and implemented. This would lessen the opportunity for US-China conflict and reaffirm Asean's centrality in regional security. Not only could this lead to an era of peace and stability in the South China Sea, but the claimants could find a way to jointly explore for oil and gas.

Neither of these scenarios is likely and the reality will be somewhere in-between. The disputes can be managed - particularly if Indonesia becomes the principal broker - but probably not resolved. Asean and its members can try to ensure that the reality is closer to the preferred scenario by seeking to manage US-China rivalry without blatantly siding with either. This will not be easy but it may be key to preserving Asean unity on this issue.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Hainan



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