CHINA may take provocative action regarding the South China Sea, which currently remains calm, to test Washington’s reaction after the United States’ president-elect Donald Trump takes office early next year, a Japanese scholar said recently.
As long as Trump continues to refrain from making his policies regarding the contentious sea clear, China has two options: Take a wait-and-see approach or engage in provocations to test the winds, Japan Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Tetsuo Kotani said.
Looking back to the experiences in 2001 and 2009 after George W Bush and Barack Obama took office respectively, China has had a habit of testing incoming administrations, he said.
In April 2001, the US and China had a dispute after a mid-air collision between a US Navy EP-3E signals intelligence aircraft and a People’s Liberation Army Navy interceptor fighter jet. The US aircraft was forced to land at Hainan Island and the crew was detained until Bush sent a letter of apology to Beijing.
In March 2009, there was an incident in the South China Sea when the Pentagon reported that five Chinese vessels shadowed and aggressively manoeuvred in dangerous proximity to the USS Impeccable surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters.
China said the US Navy ship had violated international and Chinese law by confronting its vessels off the southern island of Hainan.
“These two incidents happened in March to April, so we can expect in March next year, China may test the US new administration in the South China Sea,” said Kotani in an interview. “China can’t wait for Trump, so we expect something will happen right after Trump takes office or even before.”
However, the Japanese academic, a specialist on regional security affairs, said the behaviour of other concerned countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as the power of political factions in Beijing, could greatly determine the course of events.
The policy and style of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may also factor into the situation, he said.
The Philippines is a long-time US ally, but Duterte offered a friendly approach in regard to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea when he visited China recently.
“Over the past five months since Duterte took office in June, the situation has been relatively calm but we don’t know from now,” Kotani said. “If the hardliners [in China] win and test Trump, then Duterte might take a different approach.”
However, Kotani said diplomacy and international law, notably the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision in favour of the Philippines, denying China’s claims in the contentious sea in July, retained power in shaping countries’ behaviour.
“In reality, [China’s policy] is shaped by the arbitration. While China said it would not accept it and did not participate [in the hearing], why did it agree to conclude a code of conduct with Asean by having the early harvest scheme [affecting fisheries] next year? Why did China invite Duterte and warmly welcome him? It’s because of the arbitration,” he said.
“Without using the arbitration directly, Duterte actually shaped China’s behaviour,” he added.
But he said the arbitration decision would not fade into obsolescence, because it was determined based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Annex 7 of the ruling stipulates that the Philippines could return to the tribunal, or even the UN General Assembly (UNGA), for further action if it is unhappy with China’s implementation, which would enable Manila to make use of the decision in the future, Kotani said.
“At the UNGA, the Philippines can get a majority for a resolution – although it would not be legally binding – and that would cause huge damage for China diplomatically,” he said.