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Greater US Presence Exacerbates South China Sea Tensions

Jun 20, 2019
  • Peng Nian

    Director of Research Centre for Asian Studies, China

Soon after the sharp criticism of Beijing’s South China Sea policy at the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore at the end of May, the US announced that it would sell military surveillance drones to four Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The drones, as military experts explained, would be used in intelligence gathering and monitoring activities of Chinese warships in the South China Sea (SCS).

It is the latest measure the US has adopted to boost its allies and partners’ intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance capabilities amid the tension with China in the SCS. China must face the resulting dilemma.

For one thing, China has to do something to respond to the possible incursion of foreign military surveillance drones once they enter into Chinese territorial waters and occupied islands in the SCS, such as tracking, expelling, or even capturing these drones in extreme circumstances.

For another, such actions might create new tensions between China and the claimants to SCS territories and waters, thus giving the US an excuse for increasing its military presence as well as interference in the SCS.

Given this new development, Southeast Asian states need to be aware of the serious consequences of using these military drones on Chinese assets in disputed waters and be careful about making military procurement deals with the US. In fact, depending on American military hardware is not the right way for the Southeast Asian states to deal with China. Rather, those countries might get caught up in the great power rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Since China has pushed forward Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations and developed maritime cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam—two important stakeholders in the SCS territorial disputes—ASEAN states should continue to work together with China to maintain the peace and stability of the SCS.

The US has attempted to hinder China’s desire for growing military influence in the region by militarizing the Southeast Asian states—a difficult task that has not met with much success. Not only that, the fragile balance of forces in the region, as well as the peace and stability in the SCS, would be threatened by America’s growing arms exports to the region. The military rivalry between the US and China would also be intensified by a renewed arms race. In this context, Washington should be fully aware of Beijing’s rising concerns about US arms sales to Southeast Asian countries.

Apart from the recent American arms deals with Southeast Asian nations, new actions have been taken by the US to deter China in the SCS. Following the joint drill between the US, Japan, the Philippines, and India in the SCS last month, the US Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf and two vessels from the Philippine Coast Guard conducted the first joint search and rescue exercise near the Huangyan islands that China has claimed in Scarborough Shoal. At that point, US Vice Admiral Linda Fagan, commander of the Coast Guard’s Pacific Area, announced that the US Navy had sent the Coast Guard vessels to monitor China’s military activities in the SCS.

The significance of the US Coast Guard’s emergence into the SCS is that the US has started to maximize the overall level of its deterrence capability in the region. As Linda Fagan said, “The US Coast Guard is proud to operate with our Pacific counterparts, and together we are dedicated to enhancing our capabilities and strengthening maritime governance and security while promoting individual sovereignty...This type of engagement gives us a great opportunity to share our experiences and learn from our partners in the Philippine Coast Guard.”Since the US overtly claimed that Chinese militias are a kind of government force, it is likely that the US Coast Guard might escalate tensions when encountering Chinese militia groups.

To conclude, the America’s greater involvement in the SCS issue will cause more confrontations between Washington and Beijing, thus creating a deteriorating security situation in the region. Given this risk, the US should exercise restraint and avoid provoking China by taking aggressive actions in the SCS.

China should enhance the transparency of its military deployment on SCS islands and strengthen military exchanges with both the US and the Southeast Asian countries so as to relieve their concerns about the “China threat.” China should also develop a contingency plan for properly handling potential emergencies in the SCS. At this juncture, it is necessary for China and the US to discuss the possible serious consequences of the use of military drones as well as the presence of the US Coast Guard in the SCS, and establish crisis-management mechanisms so as to prevent conflicts from happening.

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