18 June 2020

Possible military confrontation in the South China Sea?

Sergiu Medar

The South China Sea was for years the tensions’ focal point between the US and China. This is trodden by the maritime and transport routes of Middle East’s oil to China, Japan, South Korea and other countries in the area. Also, it is placed on top of big crude oil deposits. This is why the US, along with its obligations related to region’s allies, is interested in controlling the region partially or totally if possible. Given that both China and the US are facing protests right now, though different as scale, directed towards the two leaders, in order to divert the attention of the people from the internal stability they may seek a limited military conflict in the South China Sea.

Image source: Hepta

Normally, in difficult internal instability times or when the electorate looses confidence in their leaders due to delayed decisions which suggest hesitations, the leaders of economically and militarily powerful states try to regain the attention of their voters through an external confrontation or through internal measures which are at the limit of the constitution or even beyond.

This is how Trump’s harsh messages related to the antiracial and anarchist protests should be interpreted. The solutions proposed by the US president are only a consequence of his efforts to follow the principles of a democracy which may be too liberal and, at the same time, to be effective. The organization Antifa is also part of these protests, promoting anarchy and violence as a manifestation method.

The US tries, through American think-tanks, to define its democratic political direction: liberal, illiberal, neoliberal or neo-Marxist.  For now, we can only identify manifestations belonging to each of the aforementioned political directions.

Everyone knows that what happens in the US is influencing the entire world, and the State Department, through the messages it sends, proves that it is well aware of it. Even the current antiracial protests had consequences in other states of the world. Overlapping the complaints related to the delayed reaction of some governments to the pandemic, the antiracial violent manifestations intensified the existing threats to the security of these states.

Externally, the US is focusing on the big powers competition, especially on Russia and China. Most of the American people see these two states as a threat to their security and wealth wherefore the new world was created. This feeling related to the policy led by the two states is an important popular support if the US, directly or not, would get involved in a limited confrontation with one of these countries.

The next 4 to 5 months will be extremely tense for the US. The economic recession predicted before the pandemic hit has intensified through the restrictions imposed to the people and the economy. Also, 2020 is the year of presidential elections year in the US. The recent demonstrations against the Trump Administration did not decrease his electorate too much. The involvement of urban terrorism organizations together with the democratic protest manifestations was an asset for Trump, who underlined the message law and order, which is exactly what the Americans want, therefore now he has equal chances with Joe Biden, the democratic candidate for presidency. The protestors belong to the democratic electorate, so they did not bring too many additional votes to the democrats.

Now Trump finds it difficult to divert people’s attention from antiracial protests. Without having any other option, the US president might seek for an external solution. Given that  in the relation with Russia possible military actions did not reach an acceptable planning phase, the Washington analysts think that a confrontation between the US and China in the South China Sea might be possible.

The never-ending trade war, the tensions between the two states on COVID-19 matters, the permanent build-up of naval forces and marines in the area, as well as the increased frequency and magnitude of the Chinese fleet’s exercises are increasing the chances of an armed confrontation in the area between the US and China. The American analysts from Council on Foreign Relations think that the risk of such a conflict will increase in the following 18 months. However, these actions might also be accelerated due to the increased tensions in the area, which may also make them emerge earlier than predicted.

China claims control over the territorial waters from the South China Sea, as well as over Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and even Indonesia. In order to reach its objectives, Beijing used a series of tactics and methods. It asked for the handover of the islands, it militarized others and it used diplomatic legal arguments, misinterpreting the international laws of the seas. One of the methods used were the artificial islands. These are small reef platforms placed close to water’s surface, so that they disappear with the flux and reappear with the reflux. This is where the Chinese have placed simple metallic constructions, to that the island and the construction that’s on top of it became visible both in flux and reflux. China also claims property over the territorial waters (12 nautical miles) as well over the exclusive economic zone (200 nautical miles). Recently, China created two new municipal districts for the governance of Paracel and Spratly, to give a full administrative control over the area.

Currently, China is forced to face increasing security challenges in South China Sea. Beijing must solve matters related to Hong Kong, where the security situation is getting worse. In Taiwan, the new president is going against the concept “one state two systems” and, consequently, the reunification with China becomes illusory. The new coronavirus pandemic revealed many shortcomings of the communist government when it comes to dealing with sanitary crisis management and, hereof, the increasingly frequent complaints all over Beijing.

This is also the result of the bad economic situation of China, whose economic increase rate of around 1,2% is the biggest since 1976. However, we should bear in mind that we are still talking about a positive increase, which is only happening in few countries affected by the new coronavirus. Bearing in mind that it managed to get over the medical crisis, meanwhile the US proved to make delayed decisions, Xi Jinping is ready to increase military pressure in South China Sea, taking advantage of the fact that Washington is more concerned with antiracial protests than with the international situation.

Therefore, China became more aggressive, breaching the FONOP provisions (Freedom of Navigation Operations). Given that in the South China Sea the lines separating the exclusive economic zones and even those of the territorial waters are intersecting and overlapping, the states’ ambitions on separating the area are basically impossible. China is threatening the marine oil and gases exploitation platforms, the fishing ships and the military ships of countries in the area. In May 2019, Beijing sent coast guard ships in the territorial waters of Vietnam, threatening the drilling platforms which were placed there. Recently, China did the same thing to the drilling platforms from Malaysia’s territorial waters.

At the same time, China has increased the aggressiveness rules for US and other countries’ air operations. These are manifested by simulating attacks on American ships, radar framing of US Air Force aircrafts and, increasingly frequent, provocative military exercises. In June 2019, China tested two medium-range missiles, brutally violating the provisions of FONOP.

Through aggressive rhetoric, China has accused the US of entering, in 2018 and 2019, at least 12 times, in the territorial waters of some islands that belong to it.

In the relations between the two countries, the disputes in the trade and technological field continue, which are part of the strategic competition between the two powers. All tensions have been exacerbated due to the health crisis caused by the new coronavirus and led to significant protests in both the US and China. This may weaken Trump's position in the United States or Xi Jinping's position in China. Given these conditions, one of the two leaders could conclude that a limited military intervention in the South China Sea could be a good solution to divert the population’s attention from internal instabilities.

Translated by Andreea Soare