The stability and the security of countries along the South China Sea have recently been facing serious new challenges. China’s decision to introduce special rules for crossing the border that China arbitrarily set back in 2009 in the sea basin has provoked outrage from all of the country’s southern neighbours, as their ships now need to ask for special permission from the Chinese authorities to cross a border that no one has acknowledged. After the decision, Chinese authorities arrested several Vietnamese fishing vessels which have long fished in these waters that China has now claimed as their own. Most importantly, however, was the real naval battle that came close to occurring between the Chinese vessels on the one side and the American and Japanese vessels on the other, which defiantly violated the rules set forth by Beijing by entering the prohibited waters. According to the Americans, a Chinese vessel accompanying China’s sole aircraft carrier Liaoning was on a collision course with the American guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which has a displacement of about 9,600 tonnes. Despite American warnings, the Chinese vessel continued on its collision course with the USS Cowpens, having approached to a distance of a half a kilometre, which is considered a dangerous distance in the navigating regulations for large vessels. The ships took evasive maneuvers only at the last moment and avoided a collision. According to Beijing, however, everything was just the opposite – the American guided missile cruiser ignored warnings from the Chinese vessel to stop. The Chinese vessel then approached USS Cowpens and halted in its path. Only then did USS Cowpens change course. According to most experts, however, this was likely a case of two vessels from competing countries trying to “show who’s boss” on the high seas by attempting to get on each other’s nerves.
These “games” being played by the navies of two great powers cannot but cause some concern and panic about the possible further developments in this region. The situation is especially challenging here even today as none of the neighbouring countries have acknowledged China’s decree while the U.S. has flat out stated that it will not obey this latest decision when its vessels are traversing the area. Thus a situation threatening the region’s stability and peace can happen again at any moment and with unpredictable consequences.
The political circles and the media in the south-east Asian countries are widely discussing other threats to the security of the South China Sea today. Especially alarming are the issues associated with China possibly introducing a new Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea near the borders of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. There are opinions that if China were to institute this zone, it would be similar in nature to the zone which China has already introduced in the East China Sea in 2013. That zone includes, in particular, the territories around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which Beijing is trying to claim ownership of, challenging Tokyo.
Due to this, many observers in south-eastern Asia believe that since there is also a territorial conflict in the South China Sea relating to Beijing’s unfounded claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, China could soon introduce an Air Defence Zone in this area as well. However, in carefully analysing the situation in south-east Asia, it is easy to see that these opinions are not well-founded. Only one thing is certain – Beijing’s decision to introduce a no-fly zone in the South China Sea depends on many factors, and, most importantly, it could cause China many additional unpleasant problems.
It should be noted that the conflicts in the East China Sea and the South China Sea are being interpreted very differently in the Chinese capital. In the East China Sea, the main issue is the opposition against Japan, who is backed by the U.S. and their Security Agreement which was signed back in 1960. Furthermore, from China’s standpoint, Japan illegally occupied these islands during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and is now refusing to give them back, despite the resolution of the Potsdam Conference to return all territories lost in the 1894-1895 war back to China.
The situation is quite different in the South China Sea. Here China is being opposed by the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries which do not have any mutual defence agreements with the U.S. except for the Philippines. Beijing has multi-faceted relations with these countries, a joint free trade zone worth almost $400 billion and China hopes to play a dominant role in their politics in the long-term. China has no reason to suddenly aggravate the situation here, especially since there are plenty of other reasons for conflicts to arise in the relations with the ASEAN countries, particularly due to China recently introducing a prohibited zone in the sea basin, whereby any vessel wishing to enter its waters must seek permission from the Chinese authorities. If the current status quo will remain unchanged in the South China Sea and important negotiations regarding the overall rules of conduct for all countries in the sea will continue, then it is very unlikely that China would decide to suddenly change the current situation. This could only happen if the Americans show up in the sea with their ships and their own agendas. China could then very well announce an Air Defence Identification Zone as a response to the Americans.
There is another important factor to consider in defence of the idea that China is not likely to introduce a no-fly zone in the South China Sea in the near future. It is enough to simply analyse what Beijing has gained from introducing this zone in the East China Sea. Apart from escalating the situation, noticeable activity within the Japanese navy and the appearance of a Japanese military radar on one of the islands to the east of Taiwan that is able to monitor the situation in China’s coastal and interior regions, there does not seem to have been any significant gains for China. Furthermore, the deliberate fly-overs by American and Japanese military planes that ignore all Chinese prohibitions in this area and the Japanese military’s statements that they will neither be changing their flight plans nor informing China about their flights, which are widely circulated in the Japanese press, are undermining China’s credibility as a country that can back its words and its threats. The fact that the Chinese always raise their air force during fly-overs by Japanese and American planes, which do not pay attention to them whatsoever, does not arouse anything but the feelings that China is helpless and its authorities are indecisive.
In this respect, it is very much unclear what China would gain by introducing this zone in the South China Sea. Does China really plan to shoot down any military planes that fly over the area without first informing the Chinese authorities? This is currently impossible both technically and politically. China would need to significantly enhance its military presence in the South China Sea and its military infrastructure before it could introduce this no-fly zone. Otherwise, it would just be a repeat of the other situation on the seas where Chinese forces cannot block the areas illegally declared to be Chinese and which Japanese and American military vessels defiantly enter, thereby showing complete disregard for Chinese threats.
Thus announcing a no-fly zone over the South China Sea could once again showcase that China’s armed forces are still unable to back the decisions undertaken by the political leadership. The real forecast, then, is that China will likely impose an Air Force Identification Zone in the South China Sea only when it can effectively defend and control this zone. This will only be possible in several years’ time when China enhances its navy and air force and when new military bases appear on the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
At the same time, if the situation will truly begin escalating in the South China Sea, then it is undoubtedly possible that Beijing will defiantly and, in particular, as a propagandistic move institute the no-fly zone without first preparing the necessary infrastructure.
Additionally, it could also be said that the significant changes in global geopolitics related to the events in Ukraine and a sharp deterioration in the relations between the west and Russia could also considerably influence China’s crucial decisions in this area. The fact of the matter is that this new environment is contributing to bringing Russia and China closer together, as the latter is refusing to impose sanctions against Moscow despite certain pressure from the Americans. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to Beijing in preparation for the “big” visit of the Russian President to the Chinese capital in May, the readiness of the China Development Bank to allocate $5 billion to develop Russian projects in the Far East and the gratitude exhibited by all Russian authorities, from the president and the foreign minister all the way to the defence minister, for China’s obvious support – this is all important evidence pointing to the new serious and close ties between the two great powers. As Russian interests are being curtailed in Europe, they are naturally expanding to the east. These interests are increasingly focusing on China as well as Vietnam, where the Russian Minister also made a stop during his visit.
This focus within Russian politics is in many ways strengthened by the fact that in the midst of the situation in Ukraine and under American pressure, there is a certain cooling of the relations between Japan and Russia. This is evidenced by the emotional reaction of the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the sudden refusal by Japanese companies Mitsui and Mitsubishi to participate in the Yamal LNG project and the announcement by Russian authorities about enhancing their military presence on the Kuril Islands.
The new geopolitical environment being born virtually before our eyes can bring with it significant changes in China’s approach both to the conflict in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. During a time of ever closer ties with Russia and even without creating a military and political union with her, China is still more confident than before that if the situation suddenly worsens or there is a conflict in the no-fly zone in the East China Sea, China can rely on support from Moscow as a reliable ally. This new reality undoubtedly adds a new character and new confidence to Chinese politics, which could push Beijing towards more decisive actions in the South China and East China Seas.
Dmitry Mosyakov, professor, Ph.D. in History, head of the Centre for South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.