Beijing is visibly upset about the continued politico-diplomatic, strategic and economic pressure from the United States. At the recent high-level in-person talks at Anchorage in Alaska, the first since President Joe Biden took office, the two sides sparred over numerous issues including intimidation of Taiwan, cyber-attacks on the US, and economic coercion against its allies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also accused China for threatening the rules-based order which impacts on “global stability”, ostensibly referring to the expansive Chinese claims over the South China Sea and reefs and feature contained therein, that are also contested by other claimants. Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechitoo did not miss the opportunity to reproach Washington on numerous issues including “incite some countries to ‘attack China’”.
This US-China diplomatic spat comes close on the heels of the Summit level meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or the Quad in which the Members comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States announced intention “to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is accessible and dynamic, governed by international law and bedrock principles such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, and that all countries are able to make their own political choices, free from coercion”. There is no doubt that the Indo-Pacific Quad Summit has upset China who has labeled it as ‘Cold War mentality’.
China now faces a new challenge from another convergence among the Euro-Atlantic powers such as France, Germany, Netherlands and the UK who have also pivoted to the Indo-Pacific. These countries have announced their Indo-Pacific strategies and their navies are now making a beeline for the South China Sea. The French Navy ships including a nuclear submarine have already sailed through the South China Sea and the French Minister for the Armed Forces has labeled these deployment as “striking proof” of the French Navy’s capability to operate “ far and for a long time in connection with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners".
Germany has also announced deployment by its naval ship to Asia in August and on its return voyage it would pass through the South China Sea. It was also clarified that the German warship “would not pass within the 12-nautical-mile limits China and rival states claim as territorial waters around contested features in the strategic Waterway”. Meanwhile, Germany and Japan are planning to sign an agreement on intelligence sharing in the Indo-Pacific as part of their defence cooperation initiatives.
The British Royal Navy would arrive in the region in May 2021 led by its latest and perhaps the most modern aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth II escorted by a powerful taskforce which will be complemented by “US Marine Corps and US Navy personnel and equipment. This includes a detachment of US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II aircraft and the US Navy’s destroyer, USS The Sullivans.” This is also to showcase and practice ‘interchangeability’ of crew and platforms.
The South China Sea issue also features in the Dutch strategic thinking and a foreign policy document notes that “the EU should seek cooperation with countries in the region for free passage and guarantee maritime safety…In that context, the EU must express itself more often and more strongly on developments in the South China Sea that violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. ”Earlier this year, the UK Ministry of Defence had provided details of the likely composition of the HMS Queen Elizabeth task group which made reference to a Dutch warship being included HNLMS Evertsen, but it was later removed.
The above are significant European initiatives in the South China Sea and it is not surprising that these have attracted criticism in Beijing. A Chinese scholar has accused Britain of its colonial mindset and stated “London still views itself as an ‘empire on which the sun never sets’ who sees betting in a contest between the world's two top powers, China and the US, as something that suits its international status,”
Meanwhile a Japanese security commentator has observed that “dispatch of warships by the UK, France and Germany to the Indo-Pacific could draw a backlash from China and create new tension. But its positive effects - in terms of deterring Chinese adventurism in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea - arguably outweigh its negative ones…This would set a higher bar for a Chinese decision on military action.”
Suffice to say, China is now under tremendous pressure from the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic Quads which would add to its worries. These Quads are unlikely to wane and disappear like “sea foam” as alluded to by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who had dismissed the Indo-Pacific Quad two years ago.
Be that as it may, the current mood in Beijing does not suggest that China will relent on its position on the South China Sea and the recent high-level in-person talks at Anchorage in Alaska between US and China is any indicators, the situation is unlikely to improve and region will remain highly volatile with potential for naval incidents. These developments merit attention in Hanoi given that Vietnam is directly impacted by the unfolding dynamics in South China Sea.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.