China faced acute embarrassment at the recent East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia where despite its vehement insistence that the South China Sea disputes with ASEAN countries be strictly confined to bilateral discussions, the participants at the Summit including the United States and India proceeded otherwise. This development amply illustrates how far China stands isolated in its dispute with its ASEAN neighbors who after years of patient bilateral dialogues stood frustrated by China’s growing belligerence on the issue.
The United States stood brought into this dispute on the principle of “Defense f the Global Commons” refuting China’s assertion of sovereignty over the high seas through which international trade and commerce passes. India stood brought in this dispute after China warned India to desist from oil exploration in the South China Sea in cooperation with Vietnam. India’s oil explorations in South China Sea are strictly confined to Vietnamese waters which China persists in claiming as its own.
The crucial point at issue is whether China has the capability and strength to enforce its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea through the use of military force. While this may be possible when China militarily coerces the smaller ASEAN countries with its military superiority, the same may not be possible when it comes to the United States as the global superpower enjoying strategic and military superiority. Surprisingly even India showed some spine to stand upto Chinese warnings and intends to proceed ahead with its oil exploration operations in the South China Sea. India however took pains to emphasize to the Chinese Premier that India’s oil exploration operations in the South China Sea were strictly commercial operations in Vietnamese waters and implying that this should no cause strategic concerns to China.
The United States has consistently upheld the principle of the ‘freedom of the high seas’ and is unlikely to allow China to impinge on that issue. In fact the United States has enlarged that principle to what it now calls the “Defense of the Global Commons” which now not only incorporates the maritime dimension but also extends to outer space, air space and outer space. The United States has done this keeping in mind that China’s strategic development programs are throwing indicators that China intends to dominate these spaces. The United States is now in the process of enlisting international support in this direction.
China’s belligerence on the South China Sea disputes has had a strategic effect favorable to the United States in that the ASEAN countries which were so far ambivalent in terms of their policy attitudes towards the United States now are moving closer to the United States both in political terms and strategic terms. Presumably China seems to have overlooked this aspect.
South China Sea shows all signs of continuing as a festering sore in East Asian political and strategic landscape and also a possible flashpoint when China’s propensity to use force to settle territorial disputes is borne in mind. Even if China does not reach that tipping point, China is likely to indulge in acute brinkmanship on the issue. This is also a strong characteristic of China’s conduct in international relations even though it carries the dangers of miscalculations which could erupt in military conflict. To that end China can be expected to continue whipping up tensions in this region without respite.
Strange are China’s military and strategic calculations as it persists in challenging the international rights over the global commons, an issue which it stands isolated against a wide array of major powers and ASEAN nations. The United States can ill afford to be oblivious to China’s challenging assertions of labeling the South China Sea as a ‘core interest’ and its assertion that China is willing to go to war over it.