In an area of rising tensions what is likely to happen next
The UK has recently conducted its first joint naval drills with the US in recent years in the South China Sea and has recently announced that it will be opening a military base in the Far East – with some of the suggested locations including Singapore and Brunei, both in the South China Sea.
These recent moves in the region and projected increased military presence by the UK indicate the direction of foreign policy towards the region. There is a growing realisation in the West that support for the rules-based international system is waning, and that more needs to be done to bolster it- including upholding UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). It is yet to be seen to what extent ‘Global Britain’ will lead to a significant increase in the UK’s role upholding the rules based international system, particularly if there is not a significant increase in resources, but it will nonetheless be a priority for UK foreign policy going forward.
The US Navy has been conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region over the past 4 years and has been encouraging its allies to do the same. The UK is therefore, in all likelihood, increasing activity and presence in the region as part of a strategic approach with the US. Whilst certain political elements make it harder for co-operation on various issues, it remains in the UK’s interests to continue to maintain and build its relationship with the US, particularly amidst the uncertainty surrounding its exit of the European Union. These developments in themselves are unlikely to lead to a flashpoint, but do raise the stakes, making it even more important that the UK invest in relationships and understanding of the region.
Early this year, Rear Admiral Luo Yuan warned the United States (US) that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is fully capable of sinking US carriers in the South China Sea. Worse still, Luo claimed that sinking two aircraft carriers – potentially killing up to 10,000 sailors – would settle the South China Sea dispute (itself generated primarily by excessive and unlawful Chinese claims) for once and for all. While all countries have hot-tempered officers who make hawkish warnings in the media, the fact that Luo is a serving officer in a country where media is all state-controlled is of serious concern. There is no doubt that this means that the warning is meant as a deterrent to further US challenges to Chinese claims in the body of water.
We should not discount such warnings from the PRC. After all, this authoritarian regime’s defence budget has ballooned in recent years, with much of this spending going into weaponry and artificial islands in the South China Sea, which are designed to exert control over this critical international waterway. The PRC may be growing increasingly confident of its own power as its forces build up. Perhaps what is most dangerous is the assumption that sinking US carriers will remove the West’s will to fight. As history has shown, this is rarely the case. Liberal democracies may seem like easy targets – Pearl Harbour and the Falklands are but two (different) examples – but, when struck, they have found the will to hit back, often with overwhelming force.
The real danger is that as China’s economy slows, and its legitimacy degrades under an increasingly authoritarian one-party system, it begins to consider military options to divert public attention. If it does so, there should be little doubt that the US, the UK and their allies would be forced to defend their interests. What is problematic is that Chinese leaders misjudge or misunderstand their resolve.
The South China Sea (SCS) is too important to Chinese trade for it to make concessions in on-going border disputes. Meanwhile, the US is unlikely to relinquish its perceived role as regional security guarantor. Hence, the status quo is likely to continue and the region will remain trapped in something approximating a ‘frozen conflict’.
The SCS is the geographical frontline of competing visions of world order. It is the starting point for China’s Maritime Silk Road, the most important section of its Belt and Road Initiative, seen by some as a Chinese version of globalisation. With 80% of the volume of global trade passing through the SCS, it is of enormous strategic importance for China. According to China, US presence is an attempt to thwart China’s rise.
The US sees itself as guarantor of regional stability and economic liberalisation, a role it assumed following World War Two. Japan and South Korea continue depend on US backing in order to balance against China; if the US withdraws, this alliance system would crumble. Furthermore, the ambiguous relationship between Taiwan and mainland China is maintained with tacit US support for Taiwan.
According to Graham Allison’s Thucydides’ Trap thesis, when a rising power challenges the ruling power’s hegemony, war becomes almost inevitable. Indeed, China’s military is fast becoming the most technologically advanced in the world. However, the USA is aware of its profound regional military disadvantage, and war would destroy China’s commitment to a ‘peaceful rise’. Hence, a continuation of the status quo is the most probable medium-term scenario.