Limits to US intervention in South China Sea

  • Vinod Saighal

    February 7, 2017 | 05:12 AM

PHOTO: Getty Images

When man-made disaster looms, sane voices come together to ward it off. Such a disaster is clearly looming in the South China Sea, brought on by the two leading powers of the world, China and the USA; the former by militarising the islands, the latter by objecting to it.

Minor incidents had been taking place since long. However, with the coming of Mr. Donald Trump to the White House matters have taken a more serious turn, to the extent that things 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 known sports term. The US and most of its allies, especially in the region, object to China’s militarisation 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 their militarisation poses a threat to unhindered trade flows. If not now, then any time in the future should China decide to flex its maritime muscle.

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 did not 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 its claims to the islands. While public posturing remains the same China appears to be doing some rethinking; possibly on areas where compromise would be possible.

Meanwhile the election of Mr. Duterte as president of the Philippines has come as welcome relief for China as he has chosen not to press his country’s 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 South China Sea 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 Naval forces in the Pacific Ocean, speaking in the third week of January 2017 at the Raisina Dialogues, (sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation) in New Delhi, iterated that the forces under his command would contest the militarisation as its exists, prevent further militarisation 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 and occupied several islands claimed by members of ASEAN.

The gradual militarisation of the islands has been contested by the US Navy in the past. Mindful of US opposition China’s activities have been incremental, a little bit at a time, so as not to force major reaction from the US. That was under Mr. Obama. The current situation is completely different, one could say ominous. President Trump means what he says. Few people doubt that. In just a few days after his inauguration he has acted with speed. Many analysts feel that these are opening gambits to create uncertainty as bargaining ploy with the adversary. His threats regarding Taiwan which China claims to be part of it and the South China Sea islands are not something that China would consider negotiating. Bargaining could take place over China’s economic leverage, not with the country’s core interests as seen by it.

The situation could turn critical. It will become more so in the coming days should China not make some concessions in the imbroglio. To defuse tensions it could stop further militarisation 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 militarised. 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 militarisation. 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 militarised 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 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 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 would follow. Here a limited engagement would not be decisive, leading to escalation.

This would be the stage where the Pentagon and the US establishment test the limits to their intervention. The US could well 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 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 either of the super powers (China is fast becoming one) could take the next escalatory steps. It is time to step back.

The writer, a commentator on strategic affairs, is the author of Third Millennium Equipoise.