November 10, 2011

What’s Trending in the South China Sea?

CNAS is just several weeks away from publishing a major
study on the South China Sea (look for it sometime early in January 2012). But
with U.S. and other East Asian leaders preparing to meet in Bali on November 19,
and the South China Sea likely to be a focus for some of those world leaders,
it is important to keep track of the trends developing in the region.

Just yesterday, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Seventh
Fleet, Vice Admiral Scott Swift, raised concerns that minor territorial
disputes in the South China Sea could precipitate greater conflict in the
region. “There
are lots of positive examples that people are reaching for dialogue as opposed
to defense to solve these problems
,” Swift said. Nevertheless, “A
‘miscalculation’ on the part of one actor could lead to the point where ‘presidents
and premiers are engaged in a discussion to ensure it doesn’t escalate to
something that nobody in the region wants,
’” Swift cautioned, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What it is interesting to me is the number of non-South
China Sea states becoming more involved in the regional dispute. In September, India
announced that its Oil and Natural Gas Corporation would work with Vietnam to
explore for seabed fossil fuel reserves
. Yesterday, The Hindu reported that Vietnam’s President Troun Tan Sang has
asked New Delhi for military assistance, specifically to bolster Vietnam’s
naval capabilities. According to the report, President Sang “made
the request in four fields — submarine training, conversion training for its
pilots to fly Sukhoi-30, modernisation of a strategic port and transfer of
medium-sized warships.

India has a delegate balancing act to play. As The Hindu explained:

the one hand, India would like to pay back Vietnam for its assistance in
consistently bolstering its case at multilateral fora such as the Association
of South East Asian Nations (Asean)
, and on the other, it would not want to
irk China as the plea has come shortly after exchanges between Beijing and New Delhi
over Oil & Natural Gas Commission Videsh (ONGC Videsh) prospecting for oil
and gas in a portion of South China Sea claimed by both China and Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Japan is pushing for the development of a
maritime security forum at the upcoming East Asia Summit, in part to foster
some “rulemaking
on maritime security
” in the South China Sea. Tokyo hopes that establishing
some guidance in the South China Sea will enable Japan to rebuff China’s
advances in the East China Sea, where the two are locked into a dispute over
the Senkaku Islands, or the Diaoyu Islands, as China refers to them. “The
Japanese government has been trying to solicit India and Southeast Asian
countries to support its initiative on a rulemaking forum,” according to The Asahi Shimbun. “On Nov. 2, Defense
Minister Yasuo Ichikawa stressed in a meeting with his Indian counterpart, A.K.
Antony, in Tokyo that Japan and India can contribute to the peace and the stability
of the Asia-Pacific region by deepening their defense cooperation. The
two chiefs agreed that Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Indian Navy
will hold joint drills and reciprocate port calls by their vessels

The increasing involvement of peripheral states suggests that whatever consequences manifest in
the South China Sea are not likely to stay isolated in the region. China has made it clear that it does not want outside
states interfering in the region. Yet outside pressure could force Beijing into
a more compliant position when it is negotiating with its South China Sea neighbors.
Or it could do the exact opposite. Time will tell. But it’s a trend worth

Photo: The
Ticondera-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh transits the South China Sea
at sunset in January 2010.  Courtesy of Cmdr.
Ed Thompson and the U.S. Navy.