By camouflaging stealth aggression as defence, China offers a Hobson's choice of suffering territorial loss or facing a costly war

At the core of the challenge posed by China today in the South China Sea is its lack of respect for existing frontier lines, writes Brahma Chellaney

China's rapid development and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea has alarmed the West and its neighbours. EPA
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The US-China trade dispute – with the bulk of President Donald Trump’s punitive tariffs scheduled to take effect from July 6 – and China’s efforts to ease its fraught relationship with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un by hosting him for the third time in less than three months, should not obscure profound recent developments in the South China Sea.

China has stunned the world with the speed and scale of its creation of artificial islands and military infrastructure in the South China Sea. The first Chinese dredger arrived in the region in December 2013. Barely four and a half years later, China has virtually completed building its forward military bases and is now steadily ramping up its military assets in the South China Sea.

Yet China has incurred no international costs for pushing its borders far out into international waters. Even after an international tribunal invalidated its claims in the South China Sea through a ruling in 2016, China continued with the frenzied expansion of its frontiers.

Today, China has consolidated its hold in a strategically crucial body of water, through which $5.3 trillion in global trade flows every year.

It has set up an interconnected array of radar, electronic attack facilities, missile batteries and airfields there. And by turning its man-made islands into military bases, it has established permanent aircraft carriers, whose role extends to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

The South China Sea, in fact, highlights that Beijing’s favoured frontier strategy pivots on “salami slicing”. This involves a steady progression of small actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which over time, lead cumulatively to a strategic transformation in China’s favour.

And by camouflaging offence as defence, China presents a targeted state with a Hobson’s choice: endure the territorial loss or face a dangerous and costly war with a great power.

China has successfully employed such stealth aggression in the past. Examples include its capture of the Paracel Islands in 1974, the Johnson Reef in 1988, the Mischief Reef in 1995 and the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

At the core of the challenge posed by China today is its lack of respect for existing frontier lines. China is still working to redraw political boundaries, as if its revanchist activities are central to its larger strategy to fashion a sino-centric Asia.

Two recent developments – US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ criticism of the Chinese strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea and the American action in disinviting China from this summer’s Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise, known as Rimpac – might suggest that the US is taking a tough line.

In reality, America’s response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea has remained muted ever since the building of artificial islands began.

The US has focused its concern merely on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not on ratcheting up pressure on China to stop its territorial revisionism.

In fact, the US has refused to take sides in the territorial disputes between China and the other claimant-states in the South China Sea. It has similarly stayed neutral on disputes elsewhere between China and its neighbours, including in the East China Sea and the Himalayas.

Take, for example, China's claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. Then US president Barack Obama publicly said that "we don't take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands", which Beijing calls the Diaoyu Islands.

Similarly, the Trump administration did not issue a single statement in India's support but stayed neutral during last summer's 73-day military stand-off between Indian and Chinese forces on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam.

The Trump administration also stayed silent when Chinese military threats forced Vietnam in March to halt oil drilling within its own exclusive economic zone.

Growing Asian anxieties over China have helped the US to return to Asia’s centrestage by strengthening old alliances, such as with Japan, South Korea and Singapore and building new strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam and Indonesia. It has also befriended the former pariah state of Myanmar.

Yet, the US has been reluctant to draw a line on Beijing’s actions to change facts on the ground.

This approach became conspicuous when Mr Obama stayed silent over China’s capture in 2012 of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. The capture – setting up Beijing’s “Scarborough model” for annexing other disputed territories – occurred despite a US-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area.

Mr Obama’s apparent indifference to the US commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty – which was reaffirmed by Washington and Manila a year before the Scarborough capture – encouraged China to launch its island-building strategy in the South China Sea.

To be sure, the Trump-led US has stepped up the so-called freedom of navigation operations, or Fonops, in the South China Sea. The new commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, told a Senate committee in April before assuming charge that "to ensure stability, US operations in the South China Sea, including freedom of navigation operations, must remain regular and routine. In my view, any decrease in air or maritime presence would likely reinvigorate Chinese expansion".

However, while the US has yet to provide strategic heft to its much-publicised strategy to ensure a "free and open" Indo-Pacific region, China has embarked on robust initiatives, such as the twin Silk Road projects, with the aim of changing the regional geopolitical map.

In fact, China’s establishment of a naval hub in Djibouti – its first overseas military base – and its increasing submarine forays into the Indian Ocean draw strength from its aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

China’s strategic aim in the South China Sea is to legitimise its control over the 80 per cent of the sea it claims. Through various actions, China is etching a lasting presence in the claimed areas. For example, to create an administrative base, including setting up a local civilian government in the South China Sea, Beijing has established Sansha city on Woody Island.

Woody Island was in the news recently when China, for the first time, landed the nuclear-capable H-6K heavy bomber aircraft there.

To enforce its claims, China’s actions have ranged from expelling foreign fishing vessels to granting hydrocarbon-exploration and fishing leases inside other disputant states’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones.

Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that, like it did in the Paracel Islands in 1996, China might declare straight baselines in the Spratly Islands. Such baselines, connecting the outermost points of the island chain, would seek to turn the sea within, including features controlled by other nations, into China's "internal waters".

Against this background, the South China Sea has emerged as the symbolic centre of the international maritime challenges of the 21st century. The developments in the South China Sea – the world’s main maritime hotspot – hold the potential of upending the current liberal world order by permitting brute power to trump rules.

Given the South China Sea's centrality to the wider geopolitics, balance of power and maritime order, likeminded states must work closely together to shape developments there, including ensuring that aggressive unilateralism is no longer cost-free. Failure to do that will create a systemic risk to Indo-Pacific stability and the world order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground