China Ignores an Important SEA Conference

One of the most important conferences in Southeast Asia -- the Shangri-La Dialogue -- will take place at the end of May in Singapore without what should be its most important participant – China. Representatives of 15 nations plus the European Union will be there. China won’t be.

Given that topics to be discussed include the growing arms race in Asia, security collaboration and conflict prevention among others, especially as China’s stamps its presence in the South China Sea by expanding atolls into islands and occupying them against the objections of the littoral nations, Beijing’s presence would have been greatly appreciated, especially in view of its bristling response to an overflight of the growing islands by a US surveillance aircraft that US defense officials made public this week.

Europe will certainly have made its presence felt. Attendees from Europe include the defense ministers from the UK, Germany and Spain, and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs. Far removed though Europe might be from Asia-Pacific, there is perhaps an increasing awareness of the potential dangers posed by the region’s ongoing disputes between countries.

Of course, Europe’s presence at the dialogue should not prove shocking. When issues of security collaboration and conflict prevention are on the table, Europe’s long history of warfare between nation-states is of great relevance to Asia-Pacific, with many lessons to impart. China’s rise has been a source of concern for many of its neighbors, who are unable to confront Beijing’s assertiveness in the region.

The wheels have already turned as the US hopes to develop a new policy for Asia-Pacific as part of its pivot to the region. The placement of Marines in Australia and promise of shifting naval assets to the area serves to remind regional allies and partners of Washington’s commitment to the Pacific, as we as Washington’s commitment to itself as a Pacific nation.

From Japan to South Korea, the Philippines to Singapore, and Australia and New Zealand, the US has no shortage of friends in Asia-Pacific. Yet, far from relying on old friends, the US has also sought to develop new partnerships with other countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

As Washington grows its network in the region, Beijing will undoubtedly be struck by a sense of claustrophobia. Just as China has gone about constructing its artificial islands in the South China Sea, the US has laid the foundations of what arguably appears to be an alliance of sorts. A ring of nations equal in their concern of China’s increasing assertiveness has come to encircle the country.

While no alliance formally exists (certainly not akin to NATO), the US may, if it hasn’t already, consider the establishment of such an organization. Existing multinational organizations in the region, such as ASEAN and APEC, are inappropriate forums for addressing and acting on matters of regional security.

It would be alarmist to state that conditions in Southeast Asia are such that a defense alliance is required. However, apart from the United States, there is no one country in the South China Sea that can rival China’s economic and military dominance. The balance of power skews favorably to Beijing. For countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, who maintain ongoing maritime and territorial disputes with China, neither can muster enough leverage to engage China on equal footing.

For China, at least, the status quo is sufficient. The US has been unable to curb China’s island-building activities as it was unable to prevent China’s standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. Beijing was free to gauge international reaction when it moved one of its oil rigs into disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam in early May of 2014. By then it was already a little less than a year since it had imposed an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in November of 2013, which encompassed the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands with Japan, and to this day continues to remain in effect.

While these activities succeeded in drawing immediate condemnation from China’s neighbors and the US, China has hardly been embarrassed. China’s land reclamation projects continue. The Scarborough Shoal is effectively under Chinese control. Although Beijing withdrew its oil rig a month later, there was little Vietnam could do during the duration of the oil rig’s presence.

It would therefore seem that China’s strategy is not one of large moves, but small steps forward to test the water and, if possible, establish a new normal. Slowly but surely, China’s presence in the region grows and grows, its reach extending far beyond that where it began a decade ago.

The status quo has been generous to China, if for no other reason than it has demonstrated the US’ inability to make its presence felt in the region. Of course, all of that is likely to change as the US reiterates its intentions in Asia-Pacific. With the potential of sending additional aircraft and naval vessels to challenge China’s presence in the disputed Spratly Islands, the US is clear that it will no longer sit on the sidelines.

Whether the addition of US forces will simply exacerbate regional tensions or give China reason to pause some of its activities remains to be seen. At the very least, a strengthened US military presence should provide some peace of mind to countries concerned with China’s increasing assertiveness.

The true test for the United States is not whether it can assemble a coalition of like-minded partners—Japan and the Philippines have already engaged in joint naval exercises in the South China Sea in response to China—but whether it has the patience to guide such a coalition, and, more importantly, address China in a single voice.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office