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Commentary: The sands in the South China Sea dispute may be shifting

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe revealed more of China’s thinking on the South China Sea dispute at the Shangri-La Dialogue last weekend, says RSIS’ Koh Swee Lean Collin.

Commentary: The sands in the South China Sea dispute may be shifting

An aerial view of an uninhabited island of the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, Apr 21, 2017. (File photo: REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

SINGAPORE: Were there fireworks on the South China Sea at the Shangri-La Dialogue last weekend, as what some had expected?

Not really, to someone who has been watching these exchanges for years.

But a fiery speech by Chinese defence minister General Wei Fenghe made headlines as he shared his country’s sentiments towards the trade war with the United States: 

A talk? Welcome. A fight? We are ready. Bully us? No way.

Wei’s approximately 30-minute speech was laced with fiery rhetoric, though he took pains to underscore China’s defensive posture as he touched on how China would exercise restraint but would retaliate if provoked, be it attempts at splitting Taiwan from the mainland, or aggressive posturing in the South China Sea.

The problem … is that in recent years some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation.

He added: “The large-scale force projection and offensive operations in the region are the most serious, destabilising and uncertain factors in the South China Sea.”

Although he did not mention any country by name, it seemed clear he was referring to the US which has conducted four freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) through the South China Sea this year so far, in which US naval vessels exercise internationally recognised rights to passage in those waters.

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Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe speaks at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, June 2, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Feline Lim)

The US has turned the temperature up with an increase in such operations – one in 2015, three in 2016, four in 2017 and five last year – suggesting their frequency may increase in 2019.


Despite the tougher stance on the ground, however, acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue was softer than most observers had anticipated, against the backdrop of a brewing US-China trade war and a growing consensus in the US for tougher action on China.

Shanahan did not explicitly flag China, though he did describe in great detail “a range of behaviours and activities throughout the Indo-Pacific” that the US establishment took issues with as “a toolkit of coercion, (that) include deploying advanced weapons systems to militarise disputed areas, (and) destabilising the peaceful status quo by threatening the use of force to compel rivals into conceding claims” – a veiled reference to Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

Shanahan’s words came on the back of the US Department of Defence’s release of the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which identified the Indo-Pacific as the Pentagon’s “priority theatre” and articulated specific investments in capabilities and changes in posture the Department of Defence is taking and will take. 

The picture that emerges is one where the US is not prepared to be seen to rolling back on actions to counter Chinese action in the South China Sea.

It has allies and partners in this region to consider, and the US has an interest backing the rights of countries to exercise freedoms of the seas.

However, neither China nor the US is prepared to engage in armed confrontation with each other.

For China, the stakes are high.

China claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway believed to harbour significant oil and natural gas deposits (Photo: AFP/TED ALJIBE)

As China morphs into a developed country, Beijing has to devote more attention to socioeconomic challenges that could threaten to tear the country apart, including poverty and growing inequality, rural development, rural-urban migration and employment, and cultivate a regional environment conducive to growth. But it can ill afford to appear ceding territory or looking weak.

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Beijing also understands that as it grows in power, the status quo in the South China Sea may gradually shift in its favour.

Inasmuch as Wei’s fiery rhetoric might have been designed for domestic public consumption, it was revealing when asked about how China reconciles its statement that it will not seize land from others with its building of features on islands in the South China Sea, that he responded that building limited defence facilities was “totally legitimate” because “China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea are part of the Chinese territory”.

To desist from what has been long regarded as legitimate rights exercised “on its own territory”, he pointed out, would undermine the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy back home.

So while the US might exercise continued presence in the South China Sea, the fact is regional countries and other claimant states might be losing ground.


Both China and the US have taken great pains to avoid conflict in the South China Sea in the immediate term. They both understand that regional stability depends on them having a good relationship.

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan looks on during the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, Jun 1, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Feline Lim) Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan looks on during the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, June 1, 2019. REUTERS/Feline Lim

Both Shanahan and Wei duly highlighted the risks of war due to misunderstanding and miscalculation.

They also met bilaterally in a short, closed-door session on the side-lines to discuss various issues, where they may have aired their respective differences over the array of contentious issues, not least the South China Sea, and would have plausibly reached some form of mutual understanding of the situation and found areas of mutual interest.

Shanahan revealed as much during the question and answer session last weekend. 

My discussions with my counterpart, and then more broadly, are: ‘How do we enhance cooperation?’ My focus is to identify those areas where we can have ongoing dialogue, but it is more than dialogue. How do we work together? The intent is to avoid a misunderstanding, avoid miscalculation.

There are existing confidence-building mechanisms in place, notably, the 1998 Agreement on Establishing a Consultation Mechanism to Strengthen Military Maritime Safety, the 2014 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the Rules of Behaviour for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters and a 2015 Supplement to the 2014 MOU outlining more detailed rules of engagement for air-to-air encounters.

Here, both Shanahan and Wei are certainly correct when they said that risk reduction strategies including military-to-military communications channels that remain open are critical to avoid an escalation of any incidents on the ground – even if those are fraught with challenges at times.


Amidst these simmering bilateral tensions, what should offer some hope are multilateral platforms where countries can shape norms of acceptable behaviour for the long term, regardless of the outcome of the territory disputes in the South China Sea.

The US Navy guided missile destroyer USS William P Lawrence. (File photo: AFP)

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The ongoing formal negotiations over the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (CoC), which commenced this year, can serve as a constraining factor on the actions of various parties, including claimant and non-claimant states, especially the two big powers.

It would be in nobody’s interest to seek to sour the dialogue atmospherics and risk being seen as a pariah, after some notable progress has been achieved, with the promulgation of first a draft framework in 2017 and the adoption of a Single Draft Negotiating Text in 2018.

Not prepared to relent on their military activities in the South China Sea, the best Beijing and Washington can do is to support the CoC process by desisting from drastic actions that rock the boat.

What this could mean for the long term is that with its growing military might, Beijing could exercise fuller physical control over the South China Sea, and the US may raise concerns and conduct routine military operations in the area but is ultimately loath to directly confront China.

And what regional countries in Southeast Asian and claimant states can only do is to try to shape China’s behaviour so that trade and international passage through the South China sea continue unimpeded.


In the coming years, one can expect continued posturing by various countries on the South China Sea. We can also expect China’s continued build-up of those islands and modernisation of its navy and coastguard while assiduously seeking not to cross the threshold of an armed confrontation.

Risks of chance encounters between military aircraft spiralling out of control have risen in recent years as Beijing becomes ever more assertive in the South China Sea (Photo: AFP/Handout)

Tensions will continue to roil the disputed waters, but as Southeast Asian countries too hope to focus on economic growth and preserving a regional environment that allows for this, parties concerned will likely refrain from escalation.

A huge dose of unilateral self-restraint by all actors will be needed until a CoC that can provide an agreed approach on how countries with territorial claims can find a peaceful resolution to the dispute comes to fruition.

At the same time, as the CoC process continues, it may be worthwhile to seriously consider a commonly accepted definition of “militarisation” and what other actions should not be taken by claimant states, since it has remained a sticking point in this Shangri-La Dialogue.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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