By General Vinod Saighal
New Delhi, February 3, 2017
When manmade disaster looms sane voices come together to ward it off. Such a disaster is clearly looming in the South China Sea (SCS) brought on by the two leading powers of the world China and the USA. The former by militarizing islands in the SCS; The latter by objecting to it vehemently along with many other countries. Minor incidents had been taking place since long. However, with the coming of Mr. Trump to the White House matters have taken a more serious turn, to the extent that these could get out of hand and even lead to war should the two powers not negotiate and come to a solution acceptable to both sides. Clearly in 2017 the ball lies in China’s court to use a well know sports term. The US and most of its allies especially in the region object to China’s militarization that has been proceeding apace for some time in spite of objections by the US, Vietnam, Japan, several ASEAN members and others. They have been maintaining that these islands lie in international waters and pose a threat to unhindered trade flows, if not now any time in the future should China decide to flex its maritime muscle against its opponents. China’s claims on islands, rocks and reefs located within the Nine Dash line have been rejected by the Tribunal held under UNCLOS when The Philippines referred the matter for adjudication. China refused to make its own submission and has maintained all along that it would not accept the Tribunal’s decision. In spite of its long-held position it was taken aback by the unambiguous and total rejection of China’s claims to the islands. While public posturing remains the same China appears to be doing some rethinking; possibly areas where compromise would be possible.
Meanwhile the election of Mr. Duterte as president of The Philippines has come as a welcome relief for China as the new president has chosen not to press its claim after the Tribunal’s award. He has gone a step further by engaging with China and publicly announcing that his country would break off its military alliance with the US. As things stand Mr. Duterte has not carried out his threat. After the election of Mr. Trump he is ambivalent, more so as his armed forces were not comfortable with their president’s sudden decision.
Simply put, the situation as it stands in 2017 is that Mr. Trump has clearly decided to contest China in the SCS with military force should China not change course. His statements before election and after leave no room for doubt that he means business. His Secretary of Defence is a top ranking former military officer. To add to it, Admiral Harris the Commander of all Naval forces in the Pacific Ocean, speaking in the third week of January 2017 at the Raisina Dialogues* in New Delhi reiterated that the forces under his command would contest the militarization as its exists in the SCS, prevent further militarization of the islands occupied by China and restore free navigation in areas claimed by it. It needs to be mentioned here that while not restricting commercial shipping, China has nevertheless interfered, some time with force, in exploration being carried out by other countries. (*Sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs and Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
The gradual militarization of the islands has been contested by the US Navy in the past. Mindful of US opposition China’s activities in their regard have been incremental, a little bit at a time, so as to not force major reaction by the US. The current situation is now completely different, one could say ominous. President Trump means what he says. In just a few days after his inauguration he has acted with speed. Many analysts feel that these are opening gambits to create uncertainly as bargaining ploy with the adversary. His threats regarding Taiwan which China claims to be part of it and the SCS islands are not something that it could even negotiating. Bargaining could take place over China’s economic leverage, not with the country’s core interests as seen by it.
The situation is critical. It will become more critical in the coming days should China not make some concessions in the SCS imbroglio. To defuse tensions it could stop further militarization of the islands that it holds. Going further it could even step back from a serious confrontation by agreeing to discuss the status of the islands already militarized. It is unlikely to do so publicly. Privately it could send conciliatory signals to the US President directly or through intermediaries that discussions could be started in the near future and while these last it would not undertake further militarization. It could take credit in the bargain for being the first to ease tensions.
The criticality arises, should China refuse to budge and the US goes ahead with its threat of military action. Talk has already surfaced of blockading China from the islands already militarized by it. What would be China’s reaction to such threats being carried out? Clearly it is not likely to roll over. President Xi Jinping would not be in a position to do so, especially since he has taken full charge of the PLA and donned the mantle of Commander-in- Chief. It would send in ships to counter US moves, claiming that their moves were purely defensive and should fighting break out the US would clearly be the aggressor. The world then beholds a situation where China does not back down and the US carries out its threat. A naval engagement follows. Here a limited engagement would not be decisive, therefore leading to escalation.
This would be the stage where the Pentagon and the US establishment test the limit of their intervention. Clearly the US would use aircraft from carriers lying beyond the second island chain and from bases in Japan, thereby making Japan a party to the military engagement. China would sense an opportunity to test its area denial missiles and very likely inflict damage that the US would find unacceptable. Up to this point the engagement would have been purely naval. Should Chinese retaliatory actions cause heavy damage to the US naval ships and possibly to the aircraft carrier, the US would feel obliged to engage targets on the Chinese mainland. It would be futile to speculate beyond that. There is no way that any of the super powers (China is fast becoming one) can take the next escalatory steps: Time to step back.