In the last five years, China’s power has only grown, but a major flashpoint for potential conflict is still yet to be resolved, Kerry Brown writes.
With the US and its allies, in particular the UK and Australia, sending ships through the contested South China Sea area throughout 2018 and into 2019 in order to defend freedom of navigation there, what is the latest status of this area in the eyes of China’s leaders?
Unfortunately, little has changed since the rebuttal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration outcome in 2016 which stated that the People’s Republic had ‘no historic rights’ over the area.
China did not accept the judgement, nor, for that matter, did it overtly contest it – at least formally. But in terms of the state’s mind-set, in many ways, some things have hardened. The simple fact is that almost daily, in terms of its economy and military, China grows a more significant power and can threaten to do more than it did in the past.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy is now the world’s second most powerful after the US. Observers were able to see during the 70th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the current regime in Beijing this autumn how much new and impressive kit the PLA has.
Under Xi Jinping, the leadership, particularly after the most recent Fourth Plenum in Beijing in October, continues to look unified, focused, and nationalistic in tone. No sign of backing down or compromise here.
All of this has been compounded by an international environment in which the US veers between seeming to want to retreat from its global roles, while also aiming constantly for a country which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labelled as “truly hostile”.
The unresolved trade war and a general deterioration of bilateral relations mean that Xi’s China is more, not less, likely to hold steady on its claims in the maritime arena of the South China Sea.
This supplies a note of uncertainty and instability to the situation that was not present before President Trump’s ascent.
The building of permanent structures by Beijing on what were once only small rock formations in order to make them quasi-islands continues apace. So too does the presence of Chinese ships and personnel.
Evidently, the world’s second-largest economy feels more strongly than ever that it has the moral right, and the diplomatic means, to greater strategic space around its coasts. This attitude has been prevalent for a while, but it has only grown stronger over the last few years.
This has been compounded by the narratives of domestic political messaging within the country itself. The hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party looms in 2021, the first Centennial Goal – the other marks the beginning of the People’s Republic of China itself in 2049.
Everything is already starting to gear towards this huge symbolic moment. Achieving more global validation, and greater security – and starting to aggressively face the great unresolved issue for Beijing of Taiwan – have become ever more important.
Afflicted with an impatience to finally break free from geopolitical restraints placed by others, and feeling it can flex its muscles because of the potency of its immense economy, the most worrying new phenomenon is a China that cannot slow down, and cannot deal with impediments before it which might look minor, but which could seriously derail it.
The South China Sea is one of these potential roadblocks – perhaps the most important one. The simple fact is that for all the changes in the last few years, the core of the problem has remained the same: the dense, interlinked set of contesting claims that run across the region.
No one has conceded anything on these – not even the Philippines, which has been pursuing more friendly relations with China under President Duterte. The simple fact is that diplomatically, the issue is exactly where it was five years ago. There has been no breakthrough, no one has changed anyone else’s mind, and the situation is a stalemate.
The question is in what ways this will prove to frustrate China, and whether that frustration will drive it to act in ways which will precipitate potentially disastrous consequences. That is the reason why the South China Sea was so important, and so worrying, five years ago, and why it remains every bit as troubling today.