South China Sea disputes: can Beijing ‘keep it bilateral’ despite high-seas clashes?

Asia World
High-seas confrontations have intensified as Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, unlike his Beijing-friendly predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, pursues a “paradigm shift” in policy to counter China’s maritime assertiveness, bolstering Manila’s defence alliance with the US despite repeated warnings from Beijing.

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Marcos Jnr says Manila determined to use diplomacy to resolve South China Sea row with Beijing

Marcos Jnr says Manila determined to use diplomacy to resolve South China Sea row with Beijing

Manila has also expanded its network of security partnerships – including with Japan, Australia, India and the European Union – and dialled up protests against what it says is Beijing’s aggressive behaviour in the disputed waters.

More worryingly for Beijing, according to the CASS researcher, a growing number of countries in Asia, Europe and beyond have followed Washington’s lead in not only putting forward Indo-Pacific strategies but also sending warships to the South China Sea for patrols and exercises.

As a focal point in the intensifying US-China feud, the South China Sea dispute has consistently been brought up at the Group of 7 and Nato summits and various international security gatherings.

“We oppose China’s militarisation, and coercive and intimidation activities in the South China Sea,” G7 leaders said in a statement on June 14 following their annual summit.

They also expressed “serious concern about [China’s] increasing use of dangerous manoeuvres and water cannons against Philippine vessels”.

The CASS researcher said that “from China’s perspective, it is not just a maritime dispute, but more importantly part of the rivalry between a rising power and an established power”.

“There is clearly a concerted effort led by the US to internationalise the South China Sea issue, with Manila’s courtship of external powers to push back against Beijing.”

With a significant increase in both the frequency and ferocity of maritime incidents, the expert warned of the rising danger of an unintended conflict where the US and its allies could be dragged in.

The US State Department on June 18 condemned China’s “escalatory and irresponsible actions” – renewing a warning about being obliged to defend the Philippines under a 1951 treaty – a day after yet another collision between Chinese and Philippine vessels in disputed South China Sea waters.

Both sides traded blame over the incident, with Manila saying eight sailors were injured and two rubber boats were damaged when the Chinese coastguard took “aggressive and reckless” action in intercepting a routine resupply mission to a Philippine military outpost in the contested Second Thomas Shoal, known in China as Renai Jiao.

Beijing put the responsibility for the confrontation “entirely with the Philippine side”, saying the handling of the incident by the Chinese coastguard was “reasonable, legal and professional”.

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Chinese and Philippine ships clash in first incident under Beijing’s new coast guard law

Chinese and Philippine ships clash in first incident under Beijing’s new coast guard law

“Now as acrimonious tensions have intensified sharply, we should stay on high alert and crisis management has become imperative. In the event of an accident, military hotlines must be kept open on both sides to actually avoid it spiralling out of control,” the researcher said.

Nonetheless, the situation was largely under control, the expert noted, as all sides were keenly aware of where the red line lay – that is there should be no severe injuries or death.

“No one wants to see casualties, conflict or war, so the priority at the moment is to manage differences and avoid further escalation. With its global ascendance, China has gradually adapted to the changed reality, with its overall strength and ability to manage and control the situation in the South China Sea on a steady rise.”

Natasha Kuhrt, a senior lecturer in international peace and security at King’s College London, also said the volatile situation in the South China Sea should be viewed in the context of the Cold War-style US-China confrontation.

“China is clearly continuing to test US resolve and commitment in the Indo-Pacific, especially given the US is under pressure on Israel and Ukraine, and as the US gears up for the presidential election later in the year,” Kuhrt said.

According to Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, a Manila-based think tank, China’s approach to regional hotspots has generated growing international backlash, counteracting its desire to keep such issues between the parties concerned.

“However, between weathering reputational costs abroad and growing domestic nationalist expectations at home, Beijing [has] made clear who its primary audience is. Besides, China may calculate that international pressure will wax and wane and can eventually be weathered, although not without adversity,” Pitlo said.

China claims sovereignty over almost the whole of the South China Sea. A 2016 international tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines, rejecting what Beijing says are historic claims that also overlap with those of other neighbours including Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Beijing refused to participate in the arbitration case and rejected the tribunal’s landmark decision, described by the CASS expert as a milestone in the internationalisation of the dispute.

Beijing advocates a “dual-track approach” on South China Sea matters, which allows it to discuss specific disputes bilaterally with rival claimants, while talking about maintaining regional stability as a group with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

It is also sensitive towards any criticism of its handling of the rising tensions in the disputed waters, which have attracted global attention as a potential flashpoint between China and the US.

Many countries, including South Korea and India, have lately joined the US and its allies in raising concerns about Beijing’s “grey-zone” activities, after several minor collisions and incidents involving the Chinese coastguard’s use of water cannons.

Swedish Defence Minister Pal Jonson last month slammed Chinese incursions into disputed waters as undermining regional stability and threatening global security.

Earlier the same week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to Manila. He voiced support for the Philippines and said he saw “a lot of similar things and challenges” between Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the South China Sea dispute.

“If Russia will occupy us totally in this war, we will see this war in other continents. It could be in your direction, in your region. It’s a big tragedy,” Zelensky told the Philippines’ GMA News.

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Ukraine’s Zelensky discusses ‘territorial integrity and sovereignty’ with Philippine president

Ukraine’s Zelensky discusses ‘territorial integrity and sovereignty’ with Philippine president

According to Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, China is clearly wary about frequent analogies drawn between the Ukraine war and the situation in the South China Sea and East Asia.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned in April that “what happens in Ukraine today, it can happen in the South China Sea tomorrow”, as he emphasised the need for interlinked Europe-Asia security measures to confront China.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has repeatedly talked about “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” when offering military aid to the Philippines and other like-minded countries in the region, in remarks denounced by Chinese state media as a “dangerous narrative”.

It was “not surprising” that countries such as the Philippines and Ukraine had moved closer to each other over their shared disappointment in China, Shi said.

According to Shi, “although the Chinese government has not officially criticised Zelensky, Beijing must have been very annoyed” with him over his criticism of China-Russia ties and maiden trip to the Philippines amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea.

Mark Katz, a professor emeritus at George Mason University and a global fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington, said Zelensky’s visit was both a show of support for the Philippines vis-à-vis China, and an attempt to elicit greater support for Ukraine.

“Essentially, Zelensky sought to portray China as the common enemy of both countries: China is at odds with the Philippines over the South China Sea and China supports Russia’s war against Ukraine. Since China, then, is at odds with both the Philippines and Ukraine, Zelensky was clearly arguing that the Philippines should work with Ukraine against China and against Russia,” he said.

Katz also said Beijing should rethink its high-handed approach and stop seeing the Philippines as a “vassal state” of the US.

“This is a mistake. Washington does not control Manila. It was Chinese policy on the South China Sea that drove Manila to have closer ties with Washington,” he said.

“Many Asian and Western nations have always regarded the South China Sea and Taiwan as international issues. This is the crux of the problem.”

Pitlo said Manila’s hosting of Zelensky was “a strong show of sympathy and solidarity with Ukraine”, which could raise the Philippines’ profile in Europe and was in line with Marcos Jnr’s efforts to diversify economic and security partners.

“Marcos welcoming Zelensky is a ploy to enlist European diplomatic, economic, and security support as much as it is about positioning the Philippines as a vanguard of defending the inviolability of national borders,” Pitlo said.

But he cautioned against making a simple comparison between Russia’s war in Ukraine and Beijing’s role in the South China Sea.

While Russia, a major energy supplier, has less economic clout among its eastern neighbours, China remains Southeast Asia’s largest trading partner. More Chinese trade and investment have flown into the region as Beijing’s tensions with the West worsen.

“Furthermore, the Russia-Ukraine War and the multiparty South China Sea spat do not easily lend to direct comparison,” Pitlo said.

“However, the case of failed diplomacy and resorting to force by a major actor to settle disputes are cited as ominous red flags.”