SINGAPORE: Since 2002, scores of government and military officials, academics and journalists would converge each June at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore for the Asian Security Summit.
Also known more widely as the Shangri-La Dialogue, this event has always been regarded with much anticipation.
Two years ago, the dialogue focused on the South China Sea disputes in the run-up to the Permanent Court of Arbitration award in July.
A year ago, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ comments on China’s construction of facilities on islands in the South China Sea earned China’s sharp rebuke.
And as anticipated, this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue did not disappoint with its lively exchanges on the same topic.
The very same dynamic of this exchange is familiar to those who have attended or observed the dialogue over the years: The US defence secretary makes remarks about China’s growing assertiveness and tactics of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea while China parries off criticisms of its activities there.
In the run-up to the event, Beijing was reported to have deployed missile systems to the disputed Spratly Islands and landed strategic bombers on Woody Island, part of the disputed Paracel Islands.
In response, the US Navy conducted a two-ship freedom of navigation operation off the Paracels, and the Department of Defence uninvited the PLA Navy from the Rim of the Pacific Exercise slated to take place in July.
Head of the Chinese delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Lieutenant General He Lei, defended against Mattis’ accusation of China militarising the South China Sea calling such activities legitimate and defensive in nature, and labelling Mattis’ comments as irresponsible.
CREDIBILITY AT STAKE
There is nothing novel in this exchange – both China and the US have over the years tussled incessantly, accusing one another of taking unfriendly and assertive action that amounted to some level of militarisation of the South China Sea.
Where there is no way to determine clinically which side is indeed militarising the South China Sea, it seems both sides bear some level of responsibility in heightening tensions over developments there.
But clearly, since the beginning of this year, Beijing has ramped up military activities in the South China Sea.
Besides a steadily rising tempo of military exercises including major air force patrols, missile deployments to the Spratlys and bomber landings, there was also an unprecedented naval review involving dozens of the PLA Navy’s best warships off Hainan Island on the back of the Boao Forum.
Riding on the political upswing following the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping appears keen to follow up on his promises of building a strong military, safeguarding China’s sovereignty and asserting China’s role in the international arena.
So it is unlikely that there will be any rolling back from the current spate of Chinesse military activities where the credibility of Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party and Xi is at stake, and where doing so may suggest weakness in the face of perceived American-led pressure and containment efforts. Doing so is an unpalatable prospect for policy elites in Beijing.
Likewise, the US is unlikely to back down from taking a strong stance against Chinese activities in the South China Sea, where its credibility in meeting longstanding regional security commitments in the face of growing Chinese economic clout and military assertiveness is at stake.
CHINA WILL PERSIST WITH INCREMENTAL ACTIONS
Even as the US continues this position of exercising presence in the South China Sea through freedom of navigation operations and calling out China’s activities, however, such actions are not likely to deter Beijing from taking incremental actions to push the envelop and assert its claims over the islands there.
Working to China’s advantage is also ASEAN’s desire to maintain peace and stability.
Negotiations with Beijing on the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea are expected to commence in August – also the same month when the inaugural ASEAN-China joint maritime exercise is scheduled to take place. The regional bloc is not about to rock the boat with Beijing.
READ: A commentary on how Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship can make practical progress on the South China Sea dispute.
In any case, adding to the American deterrence is also the ramped up naval presence of other interested powers from the region and afar – Australia, France, India, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Their continued presence reinforces the international nature of the South China Sea, and the importance of these straits to international shipping, which also runs contrary to Beijing’s desire to keep out external interference.
In a way, this factor also serves as a significant barrier against China and other countries taking action that would result in violence and cross a red line into conflict.
What then should we expect from the Sino-US stalemate over the South China Sea?
A SPIRAL INTO PEACE
The first plausible scenario is a conventional one, which envisages the two powers waltzing down the action-reaction spiral into a showdown.
Such a prospect is more likely to be caused by an inadvertent use of force, if tensions between opposing operational forces around the South China Sea get out of hand.
Such incidents on the ground are of grave concern because these may spark off another level of concern: Whether both parties would be willing to avoid further escalation and seek to deescalate. Common strategic interests and inter-dependencies may influence those choices.
But there is also a second plausible scenario: The action-reaction spiral may reach a point where either or both powers decide that recurring aerial and maritime incidents risks turning into a full-blown conflict involving more forces.
Beijing and Washington might seek to forestall such an outcome by deriving a strategic consensus over how to approach the South China Sea through some form of preventive, mutually accommodative arrangement.
Past maritime and aerial incidents have led to both China and the US to review and enhance their confidence-building measures.
For instance, following a spate of close aerial encounters over the South China Sea, both sides agreed on new rules of behaviour for their military aviators.
An incident where a Chinese amphibious ship came close to colliding with an American guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens in 2013 also led to the subsequent adoption of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea the following year by regional navies.
The Mandarin translation for crisis “危机” (wei ji) connotes a dual perspective – danger "危" (wei) and opportunity "机" (ji). Recurring tensions may look set to characterise the South China Sea for the foreseeable future. But a crisis does not necessarily have to be a one-way route to war – it may instead offer a timely opportunity for extricating parties from this conundrum.
More broadly for the region, developments to date observed in the disputed waters justify a more robust, comprehensive confidence-building approach.
While the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea may take time to materialise, it is necessary to seriously think about the prospect of expanding Code of Unplanned Encounters at sea to aerial and undersea forces, while either adopting the mechanism or customising one for maritime law enforcement agencies.
Collin Koh is research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme, at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.