Regional fears amid heightening contestation over South China Sea

With the declining impact of deterrence measures, including dwindling effectiveness of confidence-building measures and a wide array of dialogue-building processes in trying to mitigate risks of conflicts, the question of a full-blown conflict stemming from the inevitability of Thucydides’ trapping would be a matter of when and where.

Collins Chong Yew Keat Nov 27, 2022
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South China Sea

The ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), hosted by Cambodia, reflected yet again the growing fears of the spiraling ramifications of the tensions in the South China Sea, where affected regional players have limited options to gain support or deterrence. By relying on formal diplomatic and dialogue platforms including ADMM+ as a mechanism to reduce risks and tensions and to build more confidence-building measures, it is the only avenue for the official expression of a region’s reservations and fears that will garner greater regional collective responses in a way that will not risk inciting the wrath of bigger powers, especially Beijing.

Defense chiefs from the region and beyond called for respecting international rules to prevent maritime clashes in a joint declaration, signalling a common intent amid latent fears of big-power interventions with the potential to spark chain implications.

US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Philippines, and the highlight tour to the island that faces the disputed South China Sea, together with the message by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the ADMM+ Meeting, served to send an unequivocal message to Beijing that there is no let down in America’s intent to uphold international law and regional order. Despite the tensions regarding Taiwan, the region and the South China Sea, in particular, remain crucial for both Beijing and Washington for different purposes. Harris reiterated the stance of the US to continue standing up for respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce and the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and throughout the Indo-Pacific, as the leitmotif of her message throughout the visit.

Fear of Beijing

The message was clear that any attack on the Philippines Armed Forces would invoke the US mutual defense commitments, underlining Washington’s commitment to secure greater pivot and alignment from Manila and Presdient Ferdinand Marcos. It also serves as a message not only to Manila but to the region as a whole, including the Pacific Island states, that the US should not be seen as a distant force and will always be committed to maintaining a consistent presence in the Indo-Pacific despite distractions in Ukraine. In allaying the fears and mistrusts by a number of players in the region on Washington’s reliability and commitment to the region’s realistic needs, a coordinated series of measures of projection of influence and support are meant to shore up regional buy-in.

Although being seen as too little too late in its efforts to match Beijing’s deeper hold of the region, Washington has the edge of capitalizing on the fear factor of regional players in the future quest for security, assurances of survival and regional peace in superseding the short term gains of capital and economic advantage from Beijing. While most regional players see China as the inevitable next-door giant that will dictate regional tempo of fear and influence, they see the assurance of America’s long-term commitment and presence as insurance against any member state's capitulation to Beijing.

Harris again stood firm on the call to respect the tribunal decision in 2016 on the South China Sea dispute, which she reiterated remains legally binding. In doing so, the West would have the upper hand in both moral and normative standing and enforcing the universally accepted international law and norms.  While Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi mentioned during the East Asia Summit in Cambodia that  "the biggest risk to peace and stability in the South China Sea is precisely the inappropriate intervention and frequent interference by major countries outside the region”, implying the US, Beijing's muscle-flexing actions, especially in the aftermath of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, would run contrary to the narrative it is seeking to promote. 

By reaffirming the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the joint declaration, with the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea in mind, it gives different interpretations and perspectives to different players. To the region and the West, it reinforces the conventional pursuit of a rules-based approach and in ensuring that other players play by the same rules, both for conflict prevention and for stability in crucial trade routes.

Thucydides’ trapping

To Beijing, it would have its own interpretation of upholding its own rights for freedom of movement and activities, especially military in nature, in the South China Sea. If the Germans could fly halfway around the world in their Eurofighter jets to this region to demonstrate their intent and presence, and the French and the British show their power projection here with China in mind, then the Chinese would in their reckoning have the full rights to operate and fully flex its muscles, at least within the allowed sphere for now.

Washington's interests in the South China Sea, where an estimated $3-trillion-worth of trade passes annually, would be framed not entirely from the lens of securing its own pursuit of containing China or upholding its democratic ideals and rules-based adherence alone. The stakes are made higher to include the stability of the region, and ensuring the ultimate survival of regional states against the hegemonic onslaught of Beijing.

With the declining impact of deterrence measures, including dwindling effectiveness of confidence-building measures and a wide array of dialogue-building processes in trying to mitigate risks of conflicts, the question of a full-blown conflict stemming from the inevitability of Thucydides’ trapping would be a matter of when and where.

For now, it is safe to say that the question of when remains the million-dollar question, with most analysts pointing to the timeframe of this decade. For the triggering flashpoint, Taiwan would remain the highest risk for the first trigger, with the South China Sea being the crucial second front that is driving the strategic agenda of both Beijing and the Washington-led West.

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at collins@um.edu.my)

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