VietNamNet Bridge – The rise of China and the aggressive actions of this country in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) has caused huge instability in the region.
The year 2015 and 2016 marked an important turning point in the disputes in the East Sea, when the construction of artificial islands in the East Sea by China was accelerated and entered a decisive phase, including over 1,100 hectares of land with new facilities and runways capable of accommodating long-distance bombers.
This situation not only worried the ASEAN countries involving in the dispute, but also countries outside the region. Many observers have pointed out the clear trend of “militarization of the East Sea,” which seriously affected the regional security.
Here is the opinion of Dr. Enrico Fels, from the University of Bonn, Germany.
Dr. Enrico Fels.
For China, the East Sea is of upmost strategic importance, not only because of the hard to define but clearly rich energy, fish resources and the important sea-lines of communications (SLOC) that run through this commercially most important area, but because of the security for Chinese coastal areas from the US navy and the survival of China’s nuclear second strike capacity, which is threatened by the strong strategic position of the US air force and navy.
The creation of artificial islands and the military hardening particularly of territories under Chinese control is also a sign that China – like other great powers – seeks to dominate its ’near abroad’ and wants to gain a security buffer in its competition with the US, the region’s other primary great power. In many ways, other regional states are therefore becoming victims to a stronger and more capable China that is engaged in security competition with the US.
Analytically, it is important to understand Beijing’s long-term strategic goal although we might not like them: The Chinese leadership – in clear violation of international law and with only poor historic evidence in support – seeks to gain security and establish primacy in the East Sea by militarizing Chinese assets in the sea in order to limit the maneuverability of other navies and (ideally) keep US military forces as far away from mainland China as possible.
It is certainly right that regional states and the US have criticized Beijing for its actions and that Manila has asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to rule on certain important legal aspects regarding the disputes under UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Of course, the US would strengthen its support to the good cause of regional claimants if Washington also joined UNCLOS. Still, when it comes to great powers, it is often the case that they feel not to be bound by international law – China, a signatory to UNCLOS, is a perfect example.
Indeed, violation of international law by great powers often goes unpunished or without serious consequences. Moreover, even in the 21st century it seems, unfortunately, to be the case that only great powers can limit other great powers’ actions sufficiently and that international law is not always obeyed.
China occupies Vietnam’s Chu Thap (Fiery Cross) Reef and turns it into an artificial island. Photo: CSIS/IHS Jane’s
In this context, it is therefore also important to get a better grasp of the region’s shifting power dynamics in order to gain a better understanding of Chinese actions: Given its impressive economic and military development that reduced much nut not all of the relative advantage of Washington, Beijing is using its greater resource base to pursue a strategy that aims to keep the US out of Asia-Pacific. This strategy of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) in the East Sea and other regions shall help China to once again become the region’s most dominant power.
Consequently, China’s rise and its assertive actions in the East Sea cause great regional instability. They might, ironically, actually also turn out to increase China’s insecurity given the Asian backlash that resulted from China’s assertiveness – regional states have established closer security cooperation with the US and other great powers like India.
From a theoretical point of view, the situation has created what John Herz has labeled asecurity dilemma: Actions by one state to increase own security put pressure on other states to respond in kind – which leads to a dangerous spiral of competition among the involved states.
Key approach to solve this is to improve communication among participating nations. However, research has shown that strategic distrust is very high in the region – this is not limited to only Washington and Beijing, but given their size and military means their relationship is particularly worrisome in this regard despite their very great economic interdependence, which at the end is only peace-inducing but not necessarily conflict-preventing.
Regional states will have to work hard to avoid becoming caught in what Graham Allison has called the Thucydides Trap, i.e. that a rising great power clashes militarily with an established or descending one.
This has been the case in 11 out of 15 instances since 1500: An established great power met a rising competitor and war among them was triggered. Unfortunately, Asia-Pacific lacks a trusted framework for peace and security comparable to NATO or the EU that allows a region-wide‚ security community’.
The concept of “security community” is based on the work of Karl Deutsch. According to him, a security communityis established once regional actors share the understanding that problems are not dealt with by military force but are resolved via peaceful means. Sadly, Europe only learned this lesson of peaceful regional cooperation after two disastrous world wars and it seems that there is still some work ahead for creating such a shared sense towards regional security in Asia-Pacific.