If there ever was a time to follow the always action-packed South China Sea showdown, mark your calendar for July 12th.
Why this specific date? Well, that is the date the International Court of Arbitration has set to issue its ruling in the case of China vs. the Philippines. Most experts are of the collective mind that Beijing is likely to suffer some sort of negative outcome — an outcome they are already trying to distance themselves from.
But what will China do when the verdict is handed down and they likely lose in large measure, as is widely expected?
Beijing has several options — laid out below for your reading pleasure — and most are all bad not only for Asia as a whole, but especially so for Washington, considering it is a treaty ally of Manila and the only party with the capability to reign Beijing in if a crisis occurs:
- The least likely option – China does nothing and de facto accepts the ruling: What if Beijing simply issues the standard boilerplate statement, declares the South China Sea essentially its sovereign waters, and moves on?
This isn’t a bad option on the surface — China could continue to build on its fake islands in the area, turning them into small military bases armed to the teeth with the latest “carrier-killer” anti-ship weapons, rotate in large amounts of the latest fighter and bomber aircraft and turn the South China Sea into the ultimate anti-access/area-denial zone (A2/AD). In this scenario, Beijing is vocal about its anger towards the ruling, but simply presses on with that it is already doing, which one can argue has been very effective in consolidating its claims.
Such a reaction, mild by Chinese standards these days, seems highly unlikely. Xi Jinping and company will be under tremendous pressure to respond — forcefully and very publicly. The same old strategy won’t apply anymore — many Chinese citizens will demand a tough response, a projection of strength that Beijing won’t be pushed around anymore by external forces in what can only be described as China’s sphere of influence in the South China Sea.
This leads to only two other possibilities — and they all could instigate a dangerous superpower showdown.
The most likely option – China declares an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ):
I would argue Beijing has been telegraphing this move for months now. In issuing statements or public comment when asked about the likelihood of such a declaration, most Chinese officials say something to the effect that while no ADIZ is planned at the moment, such a decision in the future would be based on the threat environment in the South China Sea — and I would argue a ruling against Beijing could be the basis to officially change their mind.
The rationale would be easy for Xi and senior leaders to justify in the official press: China would simply declare that it feels threatened by the ruling and that Beijing was simply “forced” into an ADIZ declaration based on the perceived wrong doings of others and international pressure. And considering China has placed air-defense assets into the area and rotated in and out fighter aircraft, it would seem Beijing has at least a rough capability to make trouble — maybe declare such a zone, even it not completely enforceable, like in the East China Sea, but just a declaration would raise tensions dramatically. Such a zone, depending on its size and scope, could create a regional crisis drawing in parties from all over Asia. It would not be pretty to say the least — and Washington would have to respond, and not just by one or two B-52 flights either.
- Another possible option – China goes rogue: What if the deployment of an ADIZ was not enough in Beijing’s eyes and they wanted to press the issue as far as conceivably possible short of kinetic conflict? China could simply decide to press their weight in all of Asia’s flashpoints, essentially going rogue. For example:
– Beijing could increase dramatically the amount of air and naval patrols it conducts in the East China Sea — much to the anger of Japan. And while they are at it, why not start drilling for oil and natural gas in mass all over the area, beyond what is already causing great anxiety in Tokyo to begin with?
– China could decide to up the ante on Taiwan. President Xi could start cutting back dramatically the amount of tourists who come to the island. He could start slowing the amount of trade and investment that Taipei is now essentially dependent on. In fact, Xi has many possible points of pressure he could utilize to make Taiwan squirm — and he might find it very useful to change the conversation in Asia towards tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
– Maybe Beijing decides it’s time to reclaim Scarborough Shoal? This would be the most risky and controversial of moves — Washington seems to have signaled that it just might take some sort of action considering it has rotated assets like the A-10 Warthog and other aircraft in a show of force. However, what does America do if Chinese dredgers appear 150 or so miles off the Philippines coast and decide Scarborough is a great place for China’s next South China Sea military base?
Towards a South China Sea showdown?
Considering the stakes, Asia watchers the world over will have a busy few days before and after July 12th ruling. Unfortunately for the region what happens next could give birth to an even more tense situation in the South China Sea — and considering China’s options and what it easily has the capacity to do and has done just in the last few years to dramatically alter the status quo, it seems we are in for a tense filled couple of months.
Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and Senior Editor for The National Interest magazine.