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South China Sea & Indo Pacific Politico-Strategic Dynamics

Paper No. 5590                                        Dated 01-Nov-2013

By Dr Subhash Kapila

The Paper on this subject was presented at the Russian Academy of Sciences, School of International Studies, Moscow, Russia at an International Conference  on “South China Sea : Security and Cooperation” October 18, 2013.

The original Paper was exhaustive as it will form part of a book to be published. At the Conference the main thrusts and conclusions were read out as an Executive Summary. This  is placed below.

Executive Summary

South China Sea territorial disputes have simmered for many years in the bilateral context between China and its smaller ASEAN neighbours, more specifically, Vietnam and the Philippines.

South China Sea disputes now stand graduated and thrust in the global strategic consciousness by China’s conflict escalation and use of force in recent years in the South China Sea region. In fact, China has extended its maritime and territorial disputes to the East China Sea with Japan.

South China Sea disputes were given escalated conflictual contours in recent years by two markedly provocative Declarations.  Both unilateral in content pointed to the unfolding of China’s aggressive strategic designs and postures on its South China Sea claims.

The Nine Dash Declaration staked China’s claims of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea. The second declaration was more aggressive. China declared that the South China Sea was China’s “Core National Interest” and that China was ready to go to war over its South China Sea sovereignty claims.

Implicit in these declarations was China following the pattern of a Superpower laying the groundwork for the global community to accept “China’s Exceptionalism” in the strategic management of the Asia Pacific.

China’s strategic gamble in conflict escalation and claims for “China’s Exceptionalism” in the strategic management of the Asia Pacific, in my assessment, stands failed.

In the wake of China’s strategic gamble, the following strategic developments stand generated and can be cited as having adverse consequences for China:

  • South China Sea conflicts stood “internationalised”, something that China desperately wanted to avoid.
  • South China Sea conflict escalation triggered United States ‘Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific”, after a decade of strategic inattentiveness.
  • South China Sea conflict escalation generated a Strategic Polarisation of Asia Pacific due to growing perceptions in Asian capitals of the unfolding ‘China Threat’.
  • South China Sea conflict escalation hastened Japan and India towards fast-track modernisation of their Armed Forces and forging strategic partnership.
  • Russia’s Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific declared in end 2012 is seemingly attributable to the above politico-strategic dynamics unleashed by South China Sea conflicts.

South China Sea related dynamics recounted above have contributed to a virtual strategic isolation of China in Indo Pacific Asia  South China Sea conflict escalation arising from China’s aggressive brinkmanship have in effect presented to the United States on a plate an Asia Pacific strategic template which decades of United States diplomacy could not achieve.

Briefly put, visible today in the context of the South China Sea conflict potential are two opposing and clashing strategic dynamics as follows:

  • South China Sea and East China Sea leading to a conflict-dominated Western Pacific are the initial stepping-stones of China for attaining ‘strategic equivalence’ with the United States as a prelude to eventually prompting a US exit from Asia Pacific.
  • United States counter-strategy of a ‘Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific’ incorporating rebalancing and realignment of its Force Deployments to sustain an enduring embedment in Asia Pacific.

In effect, the Western Pacific is witnessing a new Cold War II, with China replacing the Former Soviet Union as the rival power to the United States. Notably, Cold War II is not an ideological struggle but an outright strategic power struggle between China and the United Saes, with far more explosive contours.

South China Sea strategic turbulence has resulted in the Asia Pacific security dynamics reaching a ‘tipping point’ whose future dynamics hold ominous overtones?

Resulting from China’s demonstrated conflictual record in the South China Sea the wider and far reaching strategic response that has emerged is the enlargement of the Asia Pacific strategic template to a much wider strategic construct of Indo Pacific Asia or Indo Pacific.

The South China Sea bridges the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean and this strategic inter-dependence led to the evolution of the Indo Pacific concept which underwrites the integration of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as one indivisible ‘strategic whole’ in terms of security and maritime cooperation.

The Indo Pacific politico-strategic dynamics have been discussed in fair detail in the main Paper. The ensuing politico-strategic dynamics will eventually arise from the strategic intentions and postures of the major stakeholders in the South China Sea.

 In the brief time assigned to me, focus can only dwell on the main players, namely, United States, China and Russia and China’s Asian powers rivals Japan and India.

United States-China Strategic Rivalries to Dominate the Western Pacific: The Inevitability of an Armed Conflict

Strategic domination of the Western Pacific of which the South China Sea is a critical part, undergirds the US-China strategic tussle. South China Sea conflict escalation by China is but the testing of waters by China of US resolve to stay embedded in Asia Pacific and underwrite its security. Inevitability of armed conflict lurks intensely in such an environment of brinkmanship.

The “Strategic Distrust” between United States and China is an accepted strategic reality today. Both figure heavily in each other’s threat perceptions.

United States may have side-stepped from the question of sovereignty of South China Sea islands but has been forced to adopt a clear declaratory position on the freedom of global commons and the right of navigation and traversing of international maritime waters.

United States has also been forced to publicly declare that it stands committed under its Mutual Security Treaties with the Philippines and Japan to protect them against any aggression.

On South China Sea conflict escalation by China, tough strategic choices await the United States. The United States would have no strategic space for dithering on China resulting from its traditional policies of “China Hedging Strategies” and “Risk Aversion”.

Tough stands by the United States to checkmate China’s propensity for conflict resolution of territorial disputes would reinforce and raise United States stature as a net provider of security in Indo Pacific Asia.

Caving-in on issues like South China Sea to appease China by the United States would seriously damage its strategic and political standing in Asian capitals

South China Sea determined postures by the United States may be the tipping-point for United States on whether it continues to remain strategically embedded in Asia Pacific or exits from the scene.

Russia’s Difficult Strategic Choices: Divesting ‘The China Factor’ from its Policy Formulations

Russia’s strategic choices in the fast moving politico strategic dynamics of Indo Pacific Asia is a complex and difficult task with far too many imponderables dominating the choices.

 

Notwithstanding the above, two strategic moves by Russia are discernible presently. The first move is Russia’s declaration of its own ‘Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific”. The second strategic move is the fast-track military upgradation of Russian military capabilities in its Far East regions bordering China and resting on the Pacific.

Noticeable in the above two strategic moves are sub-surface Russian strategic misgivings on China’s strategic intentions pertaining to Russia and fears of a China-US conflict, on which Russia may be forced into difficult strategic choices.

In terms of Asia Pacific politico-strategic dynamics, such Russian strategic moves inject a new strategic dynamic in the uncertain future of the Russia –China strategic nexus, the unravelling of which even partially, opens many strategic possibilities.

With the contextual backdrop of South China Sea conflict escalation, Russia may be forced to double-think its strategic alignment with China, however tenuous, when the whole of Asia Pacific and Indo Pacific perceives that the China Threat is assuming credible forms in terms of military coercive capabilities and intentions.

Can Russia as a resurgent power, whose resurgence and acceptance as an independent power centre depends on its wider acceptability in Asia Pacific, afford the type-casting that Russia is in strategic alignment with China?

Russia cannot afford to insulate itself from the China-generated strategic turbulence in the Western Pacific and would be expected by Asia Pacific countries to adopt forthright positions on the South China Sea conflicts and other regional conflicts generated by China.

Russia’s strategic dilemma would be compounded should China provoke an armed conflict with USA and its allies over the South China Sea or the East China Sea. On which side would Russia then stand?

China’s Politico-Strategic Moves Likely to Unfold in  Indo Pacific Asia

Discerning China’s politico-strategic moves that are likely to unfold in Indo Pacific Asia is a daunting task even for the most learned observers.

China’s contextual record of its politico-strategic moves in the last decade and a half can assist as reference points as to what is likely to unfold in the coming years.

China seems to be set on a collision course with the United States and its peer rivals, namely Japan and India. The former is a US military ally and the latter is being assiduously wooed by the United States as a strategic partner. Besides both Japan and India are forging a strategic partnership independent of their respective strategic partnerships with USA.

The Western Pacific which China perceives as its own exclusive strategic space is gradually emerging as the arena for politico-strategic moves of the other threes, setting the stage for increased volatility and turbulence.

China having set itself on the path of challenging the existing strategic status-quo in the Asia Pacific would unlikely to step-back from its rigid stands on the South China Sea conflicts. These presage a turbulent Cold War II setting in the Asia Pacific and the wider Indo Pacific as China plans to move aggressively into the Indian Ocean.

In essence, it can be viewed that the US Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific, the Russian Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific and enlarging the security construct from Asia Pacific to Indo Pacific all carry the flavour of some sort of China Containment.

China having no “Natural Allies” except for North Korea and Pakistan is a truism that has been persistently maintained in my writings on China.

 With the balance of power emerging as heavily loaded against China post-South China Sea conflicts, where will China get the strategic ballast as counterweight to the evolving maritime security architecture which is likely to impede its strategic aspirations on the Seas?

Asian Strategic Dynamics: Japan –India Strategic Partnership Gaining  Impetus

Japan and China are China’s prominent Asian power rivals with significant stakes in South China Sea security and stability. China’s conflict escalation has hastened the process of the Japan-India Strategic Partnership gaining impetus.

Both Japan and India, unlike China are in strategic partnership with the United States and enjoy an image of benign stakeholders in Asian security.

The above situation is resulting in an adverse balance of power situation for China. Both of them may not be able to deter China from South China Sea conflict escalation. However an informal coalescing of Asian powers along with the United States acting in unison may force China to take notice.

Concluding Observations

The ensuing politico-strategic dynamics in consequence of South China Sea conflict escalation by Chia, and which in all probability is likely to persist, can best be summed up in the words of the noted American Author on strategic affairs, who has observed:  “Just as German soil constituted the military frontline of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military frontline of the coming decades. Worldwide multipolarity is already a feature of diplomacy and economics, but the South China Sea would show as to what multipolarity in a military sense actually looks like”.

South China Sea conflicts do not offer any hopes for conflict resolution processes to succeed chiefly because China is not amenable for the same. Ominous portents of China’s approach on the South China Sea disputes can be read from the following statement carried in China’s state organ Global Times Editorial of November 2011 which read as follows: “If these countries do not want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sound of cannons. It may be the only way for the dispute on the sea to be resolved.”

Short of war, political deterrence of China may be the only option available to the global powers to restrain China from conflict escalation of South China Sea disputes.

Political deterrence on China’s propensity for brinkmanship on the South China Sea may only accrue when the United States and Russia cease according to China an over-exaggerated strategic primacy in their respective strategic policy formulations.

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