Who's Bluffing Whom in the South China Sea?

The territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea continue to plague and jeopardize the peace and security of the region. These disputes are many, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Paracels, the Scarborough Shoal, and the Spratly Islands; and although these disputes have been long running since the end of the Second World War, the region's history and its nations span centuries. There is and has been no shortage of conflict in the South China Sea.

Tensions have yet to dissipate from last year's Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines. Where Asean remains divided and incapable of bringing these disputes to an end, and a multilateral resolution is merely hypothetical, it appears increasingly likely that conflict, whether open war or, perhaps more probably, maritime skirmishes are on the horizon.

Yet, it may be that all of this talk of war is simply that: talk.

Opponents in Conflict

China is presently engaged in a series of disputes with several countries spanning the Western Pacific, among which include Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Japan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, however, may prove to be an unnecessary distraction for China's aspirations in the Pacific. Japan is too close an ally of the US for Washington to ignore their request for assistance, never mind the very capable Japan Self-Defense Forces. As such, it is unlikely that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute will amount to more than a diplomatic fuss, something to be used to stoke the flames of nationalism in both countries.

The Philippines, similar to Japan, holds a mutual defense treaty with the US. In addition to the Spratly dispute, the Philippines are in dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, a collection of reefs, rocks, and small islands just off the coast of the country. Yet, unlike Japan, the Philippines do not have an equally sizeable and effective military to counter Chinese aggression, if necessary. As such, in the event of any conflict or war between the Philippines and China, Manila will be dependent on US assistance and support.

That said, it remains to be seen if the US would risk military confrontation with China, even given its treaty with the Philippines. Much will be dependent on the circumstances of the conflict and interpretation of the treaty by the White House. However, should Washington ignore the Philippine cry for help, it would jeopardize current and future US strategic partnerships, never mind the political fallout at home. The US has no desire to be lured into a conflict not of its making or choosing, but it also cannot risk violating its mutual defense treaty without harming the legitimacy of other defense agreements.

Unlike Japan and the Philippines, Vietnam does not hold a defense treaty with the US. Moreover, although Vietnam may share strategic partnerships with several nations, it is unlikely that they will go far in aiding Vietnam in the event of a conflict with China. In addition to the Spratlys dispute, Vietnam is also in dispute with China over the Paracels, seized by Chinese forces in 1974 from then-South Vietnam.

Vietnam remains isolated in the world, for its only "partner" has been China; however, should Hanoi cozy up too closely or compromise too much with Beijing, the government's legitimacy would be called into question by its citizens, raising and/or confirming the suspicions of those who believe the government and Communist Party are puppets of China, and inflame nationalist sentiments.

In the event that China should seize one or several Vietnamese-occupied Spratly Islands, Hanoi cannot rely on foreign assistance. It cannot attack China, even if such an attack could be argued as self-defence; but it cannot also do nothing and allow the government to be seen as weak and ineffective by the Vietnamese people. The options are limited for Hanoi. To say they would be stuck between a rock and a hard place would be an understatement.


Nevertheless, it remains unlikely that any conflict between China and Japan, Philippines, or Vietnam will amount to more than saber rattling and harsh words. Even a "small" police action against the Philippines or Vietnam over the Spratly Islands, however successful for China, would have severe consequences. Any Chinese use of force would realize the fears of every state in the region. Moreover, Beijing's hope for a peaceful rise would be immediately set back, if not ruined.

Presently, tensions are already running high; however, any clear displays of Chinese aggression would simply add fuel to the fire. Countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam would then be able to turn some of their neighbours—previously skeptical, if not cautious, about standing in opposition to China—and convince these states to protest openly. Any goodwill China possessed among some of these countries would evaporate as the Philippines and/or Vietnam make their case.

However, of all the scenarios of a conflict involving China, what can be certain is the potential for an immediate American intervention. While it is questionable that the US would directly intervene in any skirmish between nations, it is likely that Washington would use the conflict as an excuse for deploying a larger, if not more permanent, security force in Asia-Pacific. Although an increased American footprint would not be welcomed by all in the region, the US would prove to be an appropriate balance against China.

Conversely, China would find an increased American presence unacceptable and a nuisance. Of course, neither country is likely to find itself staring down the barrel of the other's gun. China's plans for the region would undoubtedly be under greater American scrutiny if Washington decides to allocate more assets to Asia-Pacific.

For the US, returning in force to Asia-Pacific would prove to be a costly endeavour, resources the country may or may not be able to muster. Yet, even if this is true, Washington's calculations may determine that the security risk posed by China in the region outweighs whatever investment required by the US.

China's dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island, however heated, will prove to be a peripheral issue with respect to China's dispute with the several claimant states over the Spratlys. Ultimately, it is not improbable that China would seize one or several of the Spratlys under foreign control as a means to demonstrate its resolve in the disputes and the region; but to do so is to engage in unnecessary risk. The consequences stemming from such action are too great for Beijing to ignore.

Although it is unlikely that China's neighbors would be able to mount more than a diplomatic protest, the fuss deriving from such an incident could prove more burdensome for China than it is willing to risk. The real consequence for China of any and all conflict in the region is and has always been an American intervention. As is, it would benefit Beijing to seek a peaceful, mutually agreed upon resolution, rather than brute force.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese-Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and BBC Vietnamese Service.)