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"South China Sea Dominates 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue" by Ian Storey

2018/69, 6 June 2018

Although the much-anticipated meeting in Singapore between the leaders of the United States and North Korea was less than two weeks away, the Trump-Kim Summit did not overshadow the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) last weekend. Instead, the South China Sea dispute was front and centre in many of the ministers’ speeches and discussion sessions.

This is unsurprising. Although tensions between China and the Southeast Asian claimants have subsided somewhat since mid-2016, tensions between China and the US over the disputed waters have experienced a sharp uptick, especially since President Trump entered the White House in January 2017.

Five days before the SLD convened, the US Navy conducted its seventh “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea when two warships sailed within 12 nautical miles of four atolls in the Paracel Islands. En route to Hawaii, US Defense Secretary James Mattis promised that going forwards there would be a “very steady drumbeat”  of FONOPs. During his speech at the SLD, Mattis pulled no punches, accusing China of using military assets on its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys to coerce and intimidate other countries, and breaking a pledge made by President Xi Jinping to President Barack Obama in 2015 not to militarize the South China Sea. Mattis also remarked that America’s decision to rescind China’s invitation to the 2018 RIMPAC naval exercises in July-August off Hawaii was a response to Beijing’s deployment of missiles to its manmade islands and that China would face “much larger consequences” in the future. Mattis did not specify what those larger consequences would be, but press reports suggest that future US FONOPs in the South China Sea might be more robust—including the use of multiple ships, longer transits and close-in surveillance activities around the “Big Three” (Fiery, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratlys). China views close-in surveillance activities as particularly provocative and has repeatedly called on the US to end such missions off its coast.

The US would also like foreign navies to increase their presence missions in the South China Sea.  Prior to the SLD, Mattis had grumbled that the US was the only country that “seems to take active steps to rebuff [China] or state their resentment of”  China’s military activities in the South China Sea. Mattis may have been heartened by the speeches of the British and French defence ministers at SLD who spoke of FONOP-type activities that their navies had and would undertake in the South China Sea in order to uphold international law, freedom of navigation and the rules-based international order.

The principal Southeast Asian protagonists in the South China Sea, Vietnam and the Philippines, were also critical of China’s military activities in the disputed waters. Although Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich did not name China, it was clear which country he was talking about when he said that no country should “make up excuses” to militarize disputed areas as this would breach the sovereignty of the other claimants, violate international law and negatively affect peace and stability in the region. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana devoted his speech to the threat of terrorism, but in a media interview said that Beijing was using its military forces to intimidate other countries and that the Philippines did not have the military capabilities to confront China. A few days before the SLD it was revealed that on 11 May a Philippine boat carrying supplies to Filipino Marines on a grounded warship on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys had been harassed by a Chinese helicopter, leading Manila to lodge a diplomatic protest with Beijing. According to the country’s foreign minister, Alan Cayetano, in doing so China had crossed a red line that the Philippines would not tolerate. Yet as all the Southeast Asian claimants know well, they can do little to prevent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, either individually or collectively.  

China’s response to the barrage of criticism at the SLD was formulaic: China had the legal right to deploy “defensive” weapons to the Spratlys in order to protect the country’s sovereignty and that its activities did not pose a threat to freedom of navigation or regional stability. On the contrary, so the Chinese delegates argued, it was the US that was militarizing the dispute by conducting provocative FONOPs “under the veil of freedom of navigation”.

According to the Global Times, China is fully capable of defending its territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea and will not tolerate provocations from any Western country. If both the US and China follow through on their hawkish rhetoric, a dangerous showdown could be brewing in the South China Sea.

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.