The South China Sea: Decadal Dynamics that Impact on its Geopolitik

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Geopolitical trends are not “pop-up” events, what they represent is an evolved aggregation of implemented policies that manifests themselves as direction in a nation’s world view. And therefore as we set out to identify the critical trends that had an impact on the politico military dynamics of the South China Sea over the last decade, we would do well to note that trends evolve. The impact of Climate Change is a fact that is there for the world to perceive; it has not only set into motion migratory impulses but has compelled world governments to see the elite and the not-so-elite as a part of a shared destiny. While the pandemic, a one-of human event, has exposed the fragility of structures that we have erected that separate nations and societies. The social media on the other hand has democratised access without attaching accountability for actions; to an extent where the role of government is placed on a shaky footing. The events at Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 are a unique point in social media and international relations history.  

These three are no doubt seminal events of the last decade, but they are more in the nature of fractious and uncontrollable developments.

In this frame of reference one may identify three abiding trends that have ripened across decades to set in motion disruptive forces world over and in particular in the South China Sea:

  • The disintegration of Cold War alliances leaving in its wake absence of leadership and a breakdown of the balance of power that provided both context and substance to international relations.
  • Condition of sovereignty of states in the face of globalization of capital, labour and technology. While a surge of migrations has turned existing socio-economic conditions on its head.   All of which exposed the fragility of democracies.
  • The diminishing prospects of order as nations adopt aggressive military postures and doctrines with a view to change geography and existent political norms.

Disintegration of Cold War Alliances Leaving in its Wake a Breakdown of the Balance of Power

Elements that “Balance of Power” stoked were those devices that strengthened mutual forces such that no one State should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this condition, it was held to be the common interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed by any other member of the community. The concept grew in Europe as an instrument of survival of State which demanded that military strategy not be freed from political control. It was premised on two realities of the existent international system. First, the system was anarchic with no hegemon to dominate. Second, that nations are principle actors in the international system, as they “set the terms of collaboration” and devise balancing alliances. This theory with all its abstractions and many flaws lay at the heart of the system up to and beyond the Cold War.

Crumbling of the Soviet Union and the attendant power melt-down in Russia left the world in a unipolar condition. The US donned the mantle of the unchallenged global hegemon. It dominated international systems through time-established networks and indeed dispensed order over and including the South China Sea (SCS). The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty that dominated the last three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts (Shankar, 2019) where lack of definition masks the nature of engagement which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination and the ability to tweak the ‘rule book’.

China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence to further its aspirations are financial inveiglement, military coercion and leveraging instabilities. Since the first decade of the millennium, the international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days, gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.”

Xi Jinping in his words has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power. Further, Xi’s Thought and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” has, in imperial fashion, been added to the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Central theme is the promise of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership.  

But the problem is far more complex; existent international systems have evolved through an acceptance of economic laissez faire, Adam Smith’s views on state control is revealing and should put a dampener on China’s aspirations as he suggested “It is the highest impertinence and presumption in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense.” In such circumstances an extant milieu is most unlikely to adopt a prejudiced revision coming from a society that neither promotes liberal values nor respects an unautocratic approach.

Sovereignty of States

Globalization of capital, labour and technology is redefining the very concept of a sovereign state; while a surge of migrations have turned existing socio-economic conditions topsy-turvy. The economic benefits of this ‘new world’ are there for those willing to embrace the change. Nations that have retreated within are left in a world of denial that fails to recognise what has structurally redefined the modern successor to the overwhelmingly antiquated Westphalian Order. But what of nations such as China that have selectively endorsed and embraced attributes of the globalised world without the ‘messiness’ of socio-economic changes?

The principal motive force underlying globalisation is the progressive integration of economies and societies. Driven by new technologies, new economic and financial relationships, international policies and the urge for wealth creation; globalisation provides the ultimate amalgamation that can potentially free societies from the constraints of autocratic control. These exchanges have led to interdependencies at all levels. It has also precipitated a conflict between markets and governments that tends to weaken and tear the very fabric that binds nations together.

But is this a condition that China’s authoritarian system can tolerate? And if it cannot, will it not result in unendurable stresses within society that may eventually bring about the dissolution of the regime?

Diminishing Prospects of Order

One of the awkward ironies of recent history is the ephemeral nature of American domination over global affairs. Uni-polarity was not only short-lived, but the US was actually instrumental in encouraging the rise of competing powers. China was catapulted to the forefront of world economic development to a great extent as a consequence of American actions to integrate the PRC into the larger global capitalist system. The result was the creation of a competitor and a threat to existing order.

It is not simply the rise of China’s comprehensive power that has given notice to the status-quoists, but also its determination to re-write the ‘rule book’ on its terms as apparent from its claims in the SCS and its flouting of international norms. The loss of confidence that the US has been confronted with by the stalemate in Iraq, the Levant, Afghanistan and the past inability to come to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 can hardly have helped to steel its geopolitical poise.

Even if China’s efforts to gain strategic  dominance in the region does not achieve the desired results, clearly, their efforts are symptomatic of defiance of existing international order. China’s vision of domination leans heavily on its grandiose ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and the financial clout of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) created in 2016 as a counter to the US dominated World Bank and the IMF. The growing apprehension is that in the absence of a set of conditionality and a consensus that underwrites fiscal discipline, tax reform, deregulation of market dynamics and secure property rights; loans transforms to territorial lease or trade concessions as the Chinese have done in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Pakistan or in Kenya where the port of Mombasa serves as collateral for the loss making  Nairobi-to-Mombasa rail corridor; in another ‘debt-for-equity’ swap.   

                  On the security front the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) aims to balance the revisionist ambitions of China. While it has neither announced itself as a military alliance, it would need to define purpose and should take the next step of enhancing military cooperation to signal intent to deter future Chinese attempts to further alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A Charter and a Fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.

In the South China Sea, in the meantime, claims defined by China’s 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016. The Quad has the opening to institute measures that serve to contain China’s revisionist policies and aggressive territorial grab. The opportunity must be seized lest globalism be held to ransom by Chinese nationalism.  

An Improbable Prognosis

The three trends have seemingly opened the SCS to the arrival of a new hegemon. The apparent imbalance caused by the receding influence of the US and the absence of an alternative would appear to throw an invitation to China to fill the vacuum; and yet there remains a body of distrust. If domination of the region remains the aim then what becomes of the slackening terms of sovereignty one wonders? There is a discernable movement against an autocratic regimen, its imperial methods and its territorial ambitions whether in Taiwan, Ladakh, the South China Sea or elsewhere.

We have noted the Indo-Pacific presents an awkward anomaly to strategic thinkers. The question is, are there any basis for China’s quest for a reset to the status-quo other than a quest for power and glory in the colonial mode?

China and the Geopolitical Impact of the Virus-Induced Slowdown

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the authors column “The Strategist” on the the IPCS website and available at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5745

China’s dazzling growth story over the last four decades has been rudely disrupted by the outbreak and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent chaos it has brought down on global economic systems. Ironically, in the past, its growth trajectory was able to brush aside the fall-out of the Tiananmen Square massacre despite the apparent humanitarian repugnance it caused world-wide. Even the global financial crisis of 2008 failed to have any major impact on China due to its closed financial system, the massive economic stimulus it provided to encourage internal consumption and external investments, and its single minded approach to promote accretion of technologies, setting aside dysfunctional ideologies and international conventions.

Beijing is faced with a complex economic dilemma that will neither abate nor yield to any financial stimulus as it did in 2008 due to its very colossal size and its intricate linkages with the larger global systems. Besides, China’s lack of transparency in the origin and circumstances of the pandemic’s spread has caused a decline in global demand for Chinese exports and set into motion an antagonistic and sometimes mixed trend towards its businesses and its loan-for-lease territory grabbing strategies. However, one of the biggest long-term risks to China’s economy could come in the form of economic decoupling. Throughout the year, tensions between China and India, Japan, Australia and the United States have escalated over a number of issues, including Ladakh, Senkaku Islands, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the prolonged trade war, and increased technological rivalry. Disruption of ties between such large economies has had a downward pressure on growth; starting 2010, China’s economic growth began to decline. GDP dropped from 9.5 % in 2011 to 7.3% in 2014 and the rate continued its decline to 1.85% in 2020. It is expected to rise hereafter.

China, in the meantime, initiated military measures to persist with claims within the 9-Dash Line in the South China Sea (SCS), precipitated a territorial embroilment with India, pressed on with a grandiose global infrastructure plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), drastically reorganized and modernized the military and enforced ideological purity in schools and the media — all parts of its vision of a rejuvenated China.

In the circumstances, there are two possibilities that the future may hold:

First,Beijing has advanced the view that, their economy is emerging more resilient and competitive than any other. It aims to build a “new system of an open economy with higher standards providing more opportunities for the world to benefit from China’s high-quality development.” This is contrary to the facts on the ground; Australia is a case in point where its banning of China’s 5G network has provoked a tit-for-tat response as China systematically bans the import of Australian products in addition to embarking on a media campaign to malign Australia’s  involvement in the Afghan war. In various forums, Xi has made it abundantly clear that the world needed China more than China the world. A new found confidence of the meaning of globalization with a Chinese bent is apparent as Beijing creates an order where subjection to Chinese produce counters any maverick tendencies; as it rewrites a new set of rules for the international economic system.         

 Will the world ‘kow-tow’ to this new order?  

The Second Possibility relates to the nature of the post-pandemic world and its impact on China’s designs. Will we see more fragmented regionalism less globalisation or a global response to Xi’s disruptive nationalism? For a global response or at least a strong and meaningful push-back short term commercial interests will have to be set aside. Awkwardly, we have noted Australia despite being punished by having its exports worth $6 billion unfairly blocked by China has gone out of its way to sign up for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Within neo-realist thought, this may well appear an appropriate response, to attempt to bring China into the status quoist group. And yet, was that not the intent for the last three decades, when the assumption of dominance of military security lost ground to greater interest in the economic and environmentalist agendas? The most uncomplicated way for a new hegemon to face-down opposition is to be up against disjointed competition.

So are we witness to not just the arrival of a new regional hegemon but also a changing order of the International System? The Indian Foreign Minister has suggested in his book The India Way “…for two decades, China has been winning without fighting, while the US was fighting without winning;” or has the pandemic put another twist to this tale?

Development of the Strategic Quad Entente

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The article is published in the December 2020 issue of the Defence and Security Alert and is available at http://www.dsalert.org/DSA-Editions/December_2020.pdf

“…The world had an international economy but a national polity[1]…” This condition though a true representation of the troubled order in the South China Sea, was in fact one of the key findings in the examination of the international anarchy that prevailed just prior to the First World War and indeed was its primary cause. Economics demanded that people maintain contact with the rest of the world which not only increased dependency but also enhanced prosperity. However, in the absence of a benign hegemon to oversee the movement of goods and services, nations began to carve out a part of the world system for exclusive exploitation leading to violent struggles and the formation of alliances that bolstered individual interests.

This article proposes to examine how best the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) can counter and balance the revisionist and expansionist ambitions of China.  

NATO as a Template: Not quite a Balance of Principles

Military alliances are related to collective security systems but can differ. The variance is explained by noting that historically, alliances “were designed to advance the national interests of the parties, and provided for joint military action if one of the parties became involved in conflict; whereas a collective security arrangement is directed solely against aggression. It seeks not to influence any ‘balance of power’ but to strengthen the ‘balance of principle.’

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in response to the military threat posed by the Soviet Union. NATO’s creation also served three corollary purposes: deterring Soviet expansionism, structuring a collective security arrangement and encouraging European political integration.

Significant to the Treaty and our enquiry is Article 5, where the signatories agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all”. Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty had important support purposes, Article 2 allowed civil cooperation while Article 3 laid the foundation for joint military preparedness.[2]

In the 1960s, Cold War tensions re-ignited as a catastrophic conflict was narrowly avoided in Cuba and American involvement in Vietnam escalated. Despite this, by decade’s end what had been primarily a defence-based organisation came to embody a new phenomenon: détente, a lessening   of tensions by acceptance of the status quo. Détente had many faces. One of its most perilous was the shift in strategic doctrine to “Flexible Response” which sought to replace Massive Retaliation’s finality. Adopted in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Flexible Response offered a baffling posture of military responses that suggested control over escalation where none existed.

NATO, in the end analysis, fulfilled the post-World War II demand for an ideological bloc to thwart a common existential threat; its collateral aims were economic revival and integration. It must be said that the Treaty met its objectives yet it was driven by the starkness of survival.  

Revisionist China, a Ringside View of its Shenanigans

The international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days; gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.” Xi Jinping today, has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and bring China to its central place as a global power and, indeed, rejuvenate the nation. Further, Xi’s ‘Thought’ and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” was, in imperial fashion, added to the Preamble of the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Xi’s message encapsulated in “His Thought” resonates with the central theme of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership. It is never clear whether his constituency is the worker and the peasant (which it certainly appears not to be) or the Chinese netizen; at which time there is an apparent cleavage in society which underscores the unreality of ‘His Thought’.

China, in the meantime, initiated military measures to persist with claims within the 9-Dash Line in the South China Sea (SCS), precipitated a territorial embroilment in the Ladakh/Arunachal region of India, begun a global infrastructure plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), drastically reorganized and modernized the military and enforced ideological purity in schools and the media — all parts of his vision of a rejuvenated China. Willy Lam, Xi’s biographer declares “at any rate Xi is susceptible to making big mistakes because there are now almost no checks or balances, he has become emperor for life.”

 In the SCS, claims defined by the 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016 and historically the claim’s ancestry has been discredited by the fact that Zheng He’s seventh and final voyage ended in 1433, significant as they must have been, all Chinese maritime activity in the region was thereafter banned by royal edict. Yet, Xi has ordained ownership of 3.6 million square kilometres of the SCS, and has shown no qualms of using military power to make fast his hold.

In Ladakh, ever since the Doklam incident of 2017 and the current Galwan crisis, three factors would appear to have played on Beijing planners. First, the growing pugnacity of the “Quad” and the coalescing fall-out it has amongst the littorals of the SCS. In addition, hindrance that Quad’s intrusive presence poses to progress of the maritime segment of the BRI must cause some misgivings. Second, the rapid pace of, long neglected, infra-structure development and Indian military build-up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and Arunachal is an augury of response to any military misadventure. Third, the BRI is critical to the generation of a Sino-centric global order, India’s steadfast rejection of the continental segment on grounds of sovereignty infractions undermines the very idea. The three seen together have, no doubt, aroused Beijing to use their military to test India’s resolve.

Is there a favourable presumption that may be made with regard to Xi’s motives, that, in fact total power in his hands may be for the good of China? The turbulence that we are witness to in the SCS, the brinkmanship in Taiwan and Ladakh, strife in Hong Kong and Tibet, intentions to revise global governance, the Uighur atrocities, illicit trade practices, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future”[3] are disconcerting and would suggest anything but making agreeable assumptions about intent.

The Quad-Quest for Common Strategic Ground

The Quad was resurrected in 2017 with the aim to support a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region’. While there are differing discernments among the four countries on threat perceptions, military capability, strategic priority and intensity of retaliation, these variances place confines on cooperation but do not preclude it.

Amongst Quad states there exists not only broad consensus of strategic perceptions but also an agreement that recent Chinese policies and actions are a threat to the status quo. However, there are apparent disparities between the Quad states on nature of impact. Principal among these are their differing threat perceptions — this is the core impediment to collective undertakings that limits the scope of any action the four countries might take together. This is also what differentiates the NATO from the Quad. Divergence in threat perceptions is based on a range of factors, including the existence or absence of direct territorial disputes with China, perceptions of the potential risks of retaliation by Beijing, the economic and military capabilities that each state can bring to bear should retaliation occur.

It would now be appropriate to examine individual interests at play in order to highlight common ground.

Individual Interests

Japan perceives militarization of the East China Sea and territorial threat to the Senkaku Islands to be a part of China’s “two-ocean” strategy that aims at redistributing forces in the Indo-Pacific region by expanding its naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, where it seeks to secure its SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and bolster its Maritime Silk Road. The development of this strategy will not only inhibit freedom of navigation but would also upend the strategic balance across the Indo-Pacific. Japan would like to complicate China’s two ocean strategy by forcing it to stretch its naval resources thin over a broader geographic area.

India’s refusal to back down during the Doklam and the more recent Galwan standoff was a successful counter to Chinese continental ‘nibbling’[4]. China may have considered such a stratagem that involves incremental territorial annexation to be perceived as not significant to justify military retaliation. However, in taking a firm stand and appropriately mobilising its strike elements; India demonstrated the resolve to counter with force any action to disrupt the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

India’s perceptions of the oceanic threat from China have also increased considerably, with the extension of PLAN power projection capabilities into the Indian Ocean as a part of its “Two Ocean Strategy” and to secure its Maritime Silk Road. India views such moves as deliberately threatening its strategic space.

Despite Australia’s opting out from the Quad’s first avatar in 2007, over the last three years it has challenged Chinese policies that have transgressed rule based order. Australia opposes the use of disputed features and creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes and supports the resolution of differences based on international law. Thus far Australia’s actions have targeted economic entities It has banned the Chinese telecom giant ‘Huawei’ from the 5G deal, introduced legislation to champion an international investigation of the origins and accountability for the uncontrolled spread  of the Wuhan virus pandemic.

The United States views itself in a direct clash with China which it describes as a “revisionist” authoritarian state that seeks to re-write the rules of the US-led post-war order “while exploiting its benefits”. In response, the 2019 US Indo-Pacific Security Strategy Report[5] makes clear that its priority is in reorienting its own forces toward the Indo-Pacific region. The US trade war with Beijing has already demonstrated its resolve to challenge China’s economic practices. It has cut China’s supply of semi-conductors that enable 5G systems; setting back China by over a trillion dollars’ worth of network deals. No company is allowed to sell semiconductors made using US software or equipment without a licence if Huawei was involved at any stage of the transaction[6].

Common Strategic Grounds

It is unrealistic, for reasons examined earlier, to imagine the Quad intervening in continental conflicts with China. Perhaps with greater maturity it could adopt a collective indirect approach to imposing economic and social sanctions ala Washington in the 5G semiconductor episode. However, it is in the maritime domain that common strategic grounds exist, be it to check and curb unfair practises associated with the maritime Silk Road, violation of conventions laid down in the “Law of the Sea” or illicit claims and indeed in the freedom of navigation.

The pandemic has exposed the risks associated with dependence by all four states on trade with China. Policies and plans on how to establish alternative supply chains for strategic and critical sectors are currently underway. In addition, the devastating economic and health fall out from China’s lack of transparency over the origins of the virus, and failure to limit its spread beyond China’s borders, has reinforced the importance of adopting a collective approach to hold Beijing accountable.

Further, the implications of the Maritime Silk Road for the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific are now rapidly unfolding. China’s ‘debt to lease-trap’ diplomacy through large infrastructure lending for strategically important but commercially unviable projects to countries unable to repay. The most notable example is of Sri Lanka which was forced to give Beijing a 99-year lease on Hambantota Port in partial repayment of its extensive debts. Governments in Malaysia and the Maldives are now attempting to avoid the same fate in response to infrastructure deals with China.

The Next Step as a Conclusion

Quad should now take the next step of enhancing military cooperation amongst each other to signal intent to counter and thereby deter future Chinese attempts to further alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A Charter and a Fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.

The Quad has the opening to institute measures against China that anticipates and counters policies which undermine the existing rules-based order. The opportunity must be seized lest globalization be held to ransom by nationalism.


End Notes

[1] Palmer and Colton, A History of the Modern World 7th edition, p704

[2] A short history of NATO (https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/declassified_139339.htm)

[3] China national defence in a new era white paper July 2019

[4]https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/grand-strategy-is-total-french-gen-andre-beaufre-on-war-in-the-nuclear-age/

[5] The US Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region, 1 June 2019, 7, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.

[6] Chip and phone supply chain shaken as Huawei faces mortal threat https://www.ft.com/content/bdd2a70f-ecd2-4aff-b6c7-c0624bfdeebb , 18 August 2020