US China Contestation Worries ASEAN

Early this month, the PLA Navy along with the Chinese Coast Guard undertook naval exercises involving amphibious assault platform (Type 071 amphibious transport dock) in waters around the Paracel Islands, or Xisha Islands in Chinese, and Hoang Sa Islands in Vietnamese. China Maritime Safety Administration, through its website announced“maritime exclusion zone southeast of China’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea” to conduct military drills 1-5 July 2020. However, the drills attracted regional attention and concern; a diplomatic note byVietnam’s foreign ministry termed these exercises “seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty”; Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana labelled these as “highly provocative”; and the US Department of Defence called out the military exercises as a “long string of [People’s Republic of China] actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,”;However, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman defended the drills and accused that “some country outside the region” ostensibly referring to the US, “often comes all the way to hold massive military activities to flex its muscles, and that is the rooted reason that affects the stability in the South China Sea,”

Be that as it may, the exercises come in the wake of the earlier deployment of a Chinese naval task group comprising aircraft carrier Liaoning anda pair each of guided missile destroyers and guided missile frigates. The task group operated off the east coast of Taiwan and South China Sea area and conducted multiple military exercises. Apparently, these drills were quite close to the area where US naval vessels were ‘conducting flight operations’.

There are at least three reasons for the current Chinese posturing in the South China Sea. First, it is stunned by the US’ ability to put on display a massive force in the western Pacific Ocean in a short time even while its navy was struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic particularly onboard its aircraft carriers. China is visibly rattled by US’ rapid deployment of three aircraft carriersand dual carrier operations, flight operations by the US Air Force over South China Sea-Taiwan waters-Bashi Channel, and the unseen US submarines lurking in western Pacific Ocean.

Second, the Chinese naval exercises involve the Type 071 amphibious transport ship and should be seen as showcasing its efforts to train for mobilizing and reinforcing its A2/AD capability against any US attempts of expeditionary operations on islands and features in South China Sea that China lays claims on. The PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) force structure has expanded from about two brigades (nearly 10,000 personnel) to over seven brigades by 2020 for expeditionary operations beyond China’s borders. This aspect gains greater salience in the light of the fact that the US also has been building-up expeditionary capabilities and island operations by training through para dropping exercises on Guam.

Third, the Chinese naval exercises are also a warning to discourage smaller ASEAN states who may attempt to gravitate towards the US to seek support against China. Apparently, China is emboldened by the fact that PLA Navy’s current strength is pegged at 360 vessels which is projected to grow to 400 warships by 2025, and 425 by 2030 and the US would be still short of 50 vessels by that time.

Chinese consistent intimidationof other claimants of islands and features in the South China Sea have been causing concern to ASEAN Member States for some time now. These include administrative and operational actions such as continued land reclamations and weaponization in the South China Sea; declaration of West Philippines Sea area as part of Chinese territory including officially naming 80 islands and other geographical features in the disputed waters to which Vietnam and the Philippines; harassment of fishermen from Vietnam and Philippines including sinking a Vietnamese trawler; the alleged aiming of a “radar gun” on a Philippine Navy ship in Philippine waters; incident involving Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese survey ship in the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); and a string of incidents involving human rights abuses against Indonesian fishermen onboard Chinese trawlers. These are significant indicators of the worsening security situation in the South China Sea. Meanwhile there is no letup in Chinese aggressive posturing.

It is not surprising that ASEAN member countries’ trust in China has been undermined, and the Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit 26 June 2020 is a clear display of their disappointment with Beijing. The Statement specifically expresses concerns on the Chinese “land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region [South China Sea”, and expresses the critical “importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea”; Furthermore, the Statement calls for “non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea”.

A few days from now, the US will be hosting the annual multi-nation RIMPAC naval exercises. These had been planned for April this year but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been decided to hold these from 17-31 August and would be limited to the sea phase around the island of Hawaii. As many as 25 navies have been invited and navies of at least three claimant states have decided to send ships to participate in the event. Taiwan, another claimant in South China Sea features may also receive invitation to participate in RIMPAC 2020 in the light of the observation made inthe 2021 National Defense Authorization Act of the Senate Armed Services Committee which includes“numerous provisions intended to help Taiwan maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities, including encouraging the U.S. Department of Defence to “conducting practical training and military exercises with Taiwan, including, as appropriate, the ‘Rim of the Pacific exercise’ and other bilateral naval exercises.” This will rattleand cause commotion in Beijing who may undertake unprecedented and brazen military maneuvers to train for an ‘attack on Taiwan’.

Currently, there are no signs that the US and China will relent and in the absence of any dialogue and communication both sides are ‘signaling’ their strategic choices. The US Navyis determined to pursue “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea whose frequency has increased in recent times, and the PLA Navy will oppose and challenge the US through naval posturing. By all counts, Chinese aggressive posturing in the South China Sea can be expected to continue for the rest of the year and this will surely present a dilemma for the ASEAN countries who are seeking not only early conclusion of an “effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)” as also a legally binding document.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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