Unless China is countered, conflict would be a matter of when, not if
– Interview with Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor, University of New South Wales, by NW Ali
Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales, Canberra, spoke to NW Ali last week about maintaining national sovereignty during the increasingly contentious disputes in the South China Sea.
– NW Ali : How can the South China Sea Disputes be settled? How can the Sovereignty of Nations be protected? How can this Dispute be handled without further regional instability?
– Carl Thayer : There are two types of disputes in the South China Sea, sovereignty disputes and disputes over sovereign jurisdiction (over maritime zones and resources).
Sovereignty disputes can only be settled by the agreement of parties to the dispute. Article 33 on the Charter of the United Nations states, “The parties to any dispute… shall, first of all, a seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.”
Disputes over sovereign jurisdiction can be settled directly by the parties concerned or by international arbitration that is mutually agreeable. State parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) can make a claim to have their case resolved by binding (compulsory) dispute settlement.
In reality, disputes in the South China Sea cannot be settled in the foreseeable future but only managed. That is because China and Vietnam both claim “indisputable sovereignty” over rocks and features in the South China Sea and will not compromise. Domestic public opinion in both countries has become so riled that the current regimes have little room for manoeuvre.
Nations can protect their sovereignty by what international relations specialists call “self-help”, that is building up and modernising their armed forces for self-defence and to deter an adversary. Nations can also ally with other states to share the burden of protecting national sovereignty. The UN Charter makes provision for the Security Council to take action if a state is threatened by force or the use of force.
Current disputes in the South China Sea could be managed through a legally binding and enforceable Code of Conduct ratified by all states in dispute. Or, current disputes could be managed through a balance of power in which a coalition of like-minded states bands together to maintain the peace.
– NW Ali : What are Japan’s strategic interests in the East and South China Seas? How have these interests shaped Japan’s approaches to its own territorial claims?
– Carl Thayer : Japan is an island state dependent on two-way trade, and the import of energy in order for its economy to function. China is Japan’s largest trading partner. And Japan currently administers the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea over which China asserts a claim to sovereignty. Japan is also a treaty ally of the United States which has declared that the treaty covers the Senkaku Islands.
Japan’s strategic interests are to maintain a peaceful regional security environment, especially on the Korean peninsula where North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and the means of delivery. Japan’s strategic interests include maintaining a robust alliance with the United States in order to protect freedom of navigation and overflight, lawful commerce, and Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus.
Japan’s strategic interests extend into the South China Sea because it is dependent on secure sea lines of communication for two-way trade. Japan also has a strategic interest in maintaining the U.S.-led balance of power in East Asia against the rise of China.
Japan is an advanced economy. Its Constitution renounces the use of force. Japan has therefore chosen to develop modern self-defence forces and a coast guard to secure its interests. Japan, therefore, has the ability to use its Coast Guard to push back against repeated Chinese incursions around the Senkaku Islands.
Over time Japanese leaders have re-interpreted Article 9 of the Constitution so that Japan can gradually play a greater role in contributing to regional security. Japan thus contributes to building up the maritime capacities of the Philippines and Vietnam.
– NW Ali : What is at stake for the countries involved in the East and South China Sea disputes (China, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei)? Is armed conflict between China and its neighbours imminent?
– Carl Thayer : Among the countries in your question, only China and Japan are involved in maritime disputes in the East China Sea. Japan has a stake in defending its sovereignty and maintaining its alliance with the United States. China’s stake is to seek hegemony by disrupting the Japan-U.S. alliance. Japan’s stake is existential, in order to preserve its sovereignty and prevent its subordination to China it must build up sufficient self-defence forces to deter China while securing ironclad U.S. guarantees to come to Japan’s assistance if it is menaced by China.
The South China Sea disputes involve six parties: China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. China and Taiwan have congruent claims to sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction in the South China Sea.
China’s stake is to overcome the century of humiliation of the colonial era and become the hegemonic power in East Asia by disrupting the network of U.S. alliances and getting the U.S. to retreat from the area.
Taiwan has limited international recognition. The Republic of China was the first to advance claims over the South China Sea by drawing up an eleven-dash line map outlining the areas it claimed. Taiwan’s stake is to prevent its further international marginalization and to protect its presence on Taiping Island (Itu Aba) in the Spratly Islands.
Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia occupy land features (rocks) in the South China Sea. They have a stake in the preservation of international law and the status quo so they can exploit and develop the marine resources in their Exclusive Economic Zones. They all face an assertive China that employs such “grey zone” tactics as lawfare, intimidation and bullying. All of these countries face a dilemma as China is their largest trading partner and could apply economic sanctions. All of these three countries welcome a U.S. presence but none want to be forced to pick sides. Therefore, all three countries stress the importance of ASEAN centrality and dialogue as the means of managing their disputes with China.
Brunei does not claim and land features in the South China Sea. Brunei is currently transitioning from a wealthy economy based on the exploitation of hydrocarbons, to an economy that must diversify as hydrocarbon resources are depleted. China has stepped in to invest in Brunei to assist this transition. Brunei’s economic well-being and autonomy are at stake. Brunei thus joins Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia in stressing the importance of ASEAN centrality and dialogue as the means of managing relations with China
The possibility of armed conflict between China and its neighbours is low because China pursues a strategy of using “grey zone tactics”, that is, intimidation and bullying by its Coast Guard, maritime militia and fishing fleet that falls below the threshold of armed force. However, China’s use of lawfare has entered an uncertain period with the promulgation of its Law on the China Coast Guard authorising the use of armed force and destruction of facilities constructed by claimant states in specified circumstances.
An outbreak of armed conflict would be short in duration and China would prevail due to its preponderance of force. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have all adopted a low military posture to mitigate the likelihood of armed conflict.
– NW Ali : How real is the recent assessment of US officials about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan being imminent? Under what circumstances do you think Xi would take such a huge risk?
– Carl Thayer : There is growing consensus among government and strategic analysts that the prospect of war between China and the United States is increasing.
The Australian Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update issued in July 2020, assessed that “Major power competition, coercion and military modernisation are increasing the potential for and consequences of miscalculation. While still unlikely, the prospect of high-intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific is less remote than at the time of the 2016 Defence White Paper, including high-intensity conflict between the United States and China.”
Australia’s former Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd argued in August 2020, “The once unthinkable outcome – actual armed conflict between the United States and China – now appears possible for the first time since the end of the Korean War. In other words, we are confronting the prospect of not just a new Cold War, but a hot one as well (“Beware the Guns of August – in Asia,” Foreign Affairs, August 3, 2020).”
More recently, in March 2021, the then Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phillip Davidson stated in remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I worry that they’re [China’s] accelerating their ambition to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order… by 2050. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”
There is also consensus that war is not imminent. China is not taking any steps to prepare for an invasion that has been detected by national technical intelligence means.
A strategic analyst speaking to this author off the record said the time frame for a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan would come during the latter half of the 2020s and early 2030s.
China likely would take the risk of invading Taiwan when it felt the balance of military power had decisively shifted in its favour and that China would prevail in two scenarios. In the first scenario, China would calculate that it could invade and take control of Taiwan before the U.S. could mobilise an effective response. In the second scenario, China would conclude that the United States lacked the will to respond.
– NW Ali : How effective do you think the US floating port would be in dominating SCS? Has there been any progress on the talk of the US setting up an independent fleet for SCS?
– Carl Thayer : China has so militarised its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea that if conflict suddenly broke out with the United States, any U.S. Navy warship in the South China Sea, including a floating expeditionary base ship like the recently commissioned USS Miquel Keith, would be at risk. The current U.S. strategy is to position precision strike missiles around the South China Sea to overcome China’s current dominance.
The USS Miquel Keith would be a definite asset supporting U.S. expeditionary forces in a limited conflict by conducting mine counter-measures or supporting special forces and launching helicopter assaults. Sea control of the South China Sea would require a preponderance of naval force including submarines, surface warships, aircraft carriers and auxiliary vessels.
In November 2020, in the waning days of the Trump Administration, Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite announced his Department’s intention to stand up the 1st Fleet with responsibility for the Indian Ocean. The Biden Administration’s proposed budget for the U.S. Navy in Fiscal Year 2020 does not provide funding for a 1st Fleet.
— Carlyle Thayer is Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales Canberra and Director of the Thayer Consultancy. He is a Southeast Asia regional specialist who has taught at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Australian Command and Staff College, and Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College. [https://unsw.adfa.edu.au/carlyle-thayer]