Vietnam People’s Naval Infantry march on the Spratly Islands. Few analysts believe the Vietnamese can repeat their 1979 defeat of the Chinese. Source: Wikimedia
In 1823, with the Spanish empire in terminal decline, the US unveiled its Monroe Doctrine where it declared its suzerainty over the Americas, making it clear that European powers should concentrate their efforts east of the Atlantic.
Largely agrarian with a tiny population and even smaller armed forces, it still felt confident to declare its right to dominate an entire hemisphere. In 2016, the US is looking to deny mighty China, with its vast armed forces and the largest national population the world has ever seen, from the exertion of influence over the waters off its southern coast. This long US tradition of refusing to tolerate interference across two continents undermines its condemnations of China’s expansion in the South China Sea.
China may be preparing to conduct land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal, which it took from the Philippines in 2012. Satellite pictures show radar being installed on Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands and two batteries of formidable HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels. Analysts have said that China could unveil an air-defence identification zone over the contested waters.
It already has one operational in the East China Sea, to deter Japanese ambitions.
Beijing has constructed around 3,000 acres of new South China Sea territory during the last 18 months which includes three runways. Most troubling in other capitals could be Beijing’s insistence that the work is not militarily provocative.
China recently moved an oil rig into the sector claimed by Vietnam and few analysts believe the process will stop here. The sea’s rich, untapped resources and China’s massive domestic demand are at the centre of Beijing’s expansionism.
But US freedom of navigation operations are building regional support. Asean, including Indonesia which has no overlapping claim with China to the sea, has expressed worries about freedom of navigation and over flight and the rule of law, reflecting US concerns.
Washington has made political and diplomatic gains, establishing a coalition while Beijing’s military consolidation is largely unchecked.
But Washington’s limited aims and the simple justice of its attempt to enforce the principles of international maritime law have successfully managed to build a consensus in East Asia.
The dispute is clearly focussing minds in Washington which has spent most of the last decade formalising ties with Asean and invested in its bilateral relations with Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam which are in dispute with China.
This Southeast Asian diplomatic embrace has yielded results. Asean expressed grave concern about China’s construction of artificial islands and the threat to freedom of navigation and over flight. In the past members like Laos and Cambodia, which are firmly within Beijing’s sphere of influence and have no claims to the South China Sea, would have vetoed such declarations.
The two nations at the frontline of the dispute, Vietnam and the Philippines, have started to stand up to China unilaterally, condemning Beijing’s runway tests and weapons deployment.
US President Barack Obama’s subtle strategy has deepened existing alliances. Singapore has agreed to host four US combat ships and a surveillance aircraft, US marines have been stationed in Darwin, northern Australia, and the Philippines has agreed to allow the US access to at least five bases overlooking the South China Sea.
An emboldened Manila also signed a defence deal with Tokyo for military aircraft. The Obama administration can take the credit for this coalition of the willing.
An increasingly encircled China is keen to condemn these alliances. It attacked the Philippines over its five-base deal with the US. “The US-Philippines cooperation should not target third parties, harm the sovereignty or security interests of other states or hamper regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told the press this week.
If Beijing continues to arm its outposts, Washington, Asean and Australia will want to make China aware that its activities are being monitored and a coalition is prepared to use more than just words to return to the status quo. The Chinese, however, appear more than willing to call Washington and the international community’s bluff on the issue.
Beijing’s rulers will not want to lose face with their population and the idea of climbing down from the current expansionist stance seems implausible. For all the talk of concerns and solidarity among those opposed to China’s growing dominance, Beijing will know it can brush away words and resolutions. Whether the region can afford to allow the Chinese to establish an air-defence network is another matter.
Leaders in Asean, Washington and Canberra need to work out how to respond to the loss of an aircraft at the hands of a missile fired from a South China Sea island.
And if Beijing wants to study how a nation can extend its influence deep into international waters, it need only follow the US example.