China pushes the red line: Growing challenges to rules-based order and international norms in the South China Sea

New power tools being used by China to expand regional dominance have heightened regional security dilemmas and sparked arms races.  They have also caused systemic wariness among nations of the Indo-Pacific who will long for the status quo of a stable rules-based order.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Jun 11, 2024
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr

As China has continued to up the ante in the contested waters of the South China Sea, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr argued that the presence of the United States was crucial to regional peace during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, as the Southeast Asian country faces growing Chinese pressure in waters off its coastline.

Marcos said that the Philippines and other regional countries had a vision for "peace, stability, and prosperity" in the South China Sea, but it is fast being undermined, pointing out the coercive and deceptive actions in the contested zones that violated sovereign rights.

By pointing out China’s actions as dangerous and destabilising and emphasising that the stabilising presence of the US was critical, Marcos implies that Manila is taking sides in the domain of security and defence, and sending a message to Beijing that it will continue to work towards shaping a regional response that is both solid and resilient.

In projecting the security in the South China Sea as a global issue, Marcos is projecting a toughened stance against China’s bellicose actions that have seen Filipino sailors injured, as one that puts the conventional maritime and international order based on rules and law at stake.

Growing friction

The Philippines remains a strategic partner for the US, which has seen more military bases being set up and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows US troops to rotate through and store defence equipment and supplies.

The Shang-ri La Dialogue laid bare the growing frictions with a stark display of contrasting and contesting perceptions of both China and the US, and the responses through the different lenses of regional powers.

China has accused the US of using the Philippines as a pawn to stir up trouble in the South China Sea. The US needs an expanded fallback option in addition to the Quad, and with the formation of the Squad and the momentum of the Camp David Pact and Aukus, the US gets additional supporting actions by allies through the unilateral actions of bilateral defence diplomacy by Japan and others, with the example of the Reciprocal Access Agreements and the Official Security Assistance involving the region.

Despite US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China last month to forge closer mutual understanding and reduce friction, Beijing’s subsequent actions to host Russian President Vlaidmir Putin and the "punishment drills" against Taiwan during the inauguration speech by President Lai Ching Tel sent a clear retaliatory message against the US as well. 

The systemic rivalry was made clearer during the Shangri-La Dialogue when US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and China's Defence Minister Dong Jun met in Singapore on the sidelines of Asia's premier defence conclave. Austin reiterated the importance of freedom of navigation under international law. Dong responded by telling Austin that the US was stoking tensions through its military presence in the region. 

Coercive actions

The Dialogue came at a critical time with China’s massive drills around Taiwan and coercive actions in the South China Sea. Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng said that Beijing will not be soft on "foreign interference", in responding to Austin who said that disputes should not be resolved through punishment, in a tacit reference to the "punishment drills" by Beijing against Taiwan. 

Jing said that the US had “betrayed its promise, hollowed out the one-China principle” and armed the island. Jing also accused Taiwan’s new leader Lai of pushing the island towards the “abyss of disaster”. Dong also accused Washington of sending the wrong signals to Taiwan's independence forces.

In a clearer reference to the drills, PLA Lieutenant General He Lei said the recent exercises around the island were a “rehearsal” for possible combat operations against Taiwan in the future, stating that “This military exercise is the closest to actual combat for the PLA’s task forces to familiarise themselves with the battlefield environment, strengthen coordination, and improve command capabilities,”.

He warned that Beijing does not want to see Washington get involved in a war in the Taiwan Strait, “but we do have countermeasures if that happens”. The PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command said the exercises were “punishment” for “Taiwan separatists” and a “severe warning” to outside forces intent on interference and provocation.

The PLA accused the US of seeking to build an Asia-Pacific version of NATO to maintain its hegemony in the region, responding to Austin’s remarks about strengthening alliances across the Indo-Pacific.

Despite efforts by both Beijing and Washington to try to reestablish norms and guardrails, the extent of disagreements and deep-layered differences on key and sensitive segments prevent further efforts to de-escalate the security dilemmas.

While US President Joe Biden has always cast the rivalry as one of intense competition, ground realities make it difficult to set guardrails that will confine the intense rivalry within the sphere of competition alone.

New changes and additions to last month's drills include the use of coast guard ships to surround Taiwan's outlying islands, especially Kinmen and Matsu. China stopped recognizing the de facto demarcation of territorial waters in recent months in a break from the status quo. 

Heightened security dilemmas

Interestingly, the main opposition Kuomintang, which is widely seen as China-leaning, also issued a statement, calling on Beijing to "exercise restraint, avoid escalating the situation, cherish the fruits of peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait, and jointly safeguard the regional status quo." 

Others have questioned why China has executed the drills now during the inauguration of President Lai, and not during both of his predecessor’s inaugurations. The Pelosi effect also contributed to this, where the drills conducted by China in retaliation to the visit of then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were virtually uncontested by the US, thus making Beijing bold to extend the red line further, in incrementally pushing for a new normal and limiting direct hard power responses by neighbouring powers and the US.

New power tools being used by China to expand regional dominance have heightened regional security dilemmas and sparked arms races.  They have also caused systemic wariness among nations of the Indo-Pacific who will long for the status quo of a stable rules-based order.

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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