Thu, Feb 15, 2018 - Page 8 News List

South China Sea listed as a potential conflict zone

By Song Yann-huei 宋燕輝

In December last year, the US-based Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action published its annual Preventive Priorities Survey report, listing 30 regions where conflict is likely and the possible effects of such conflict on the US.

A sovereignty conflict in the South China Sea was listed as one of the eight likeliest conflicts, raising the risk level from last year’s tier two, which corresponds to moderate priority, to tier one, a high priority.

On Jan. 24, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank organized its annual Asia Forecast forum. Discussing which major security incidents could occur in the Asian region this year, 42 percent of attendants chose the Korean Peninsula, 31 percent the South China Sea, 14 percent the Indian-Chinese border, 10 percent the East China Sea and 3 percent the Taiwan Strait.

Although these think tanks forecast conflict or a major security incident in the South China Sea, CSIS senior fellow for Asian Security Zack Cooper and Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the CSIS’ China Power Project, did not think it very likely.

Cooper said he thinks the situation in the South China Sea is moving in the general direction that China wants, and as long as China and the Philippines maintain their friendly relationship, Beijing will not take any strong, provocative actions in the area.

Glaser agreed and said that China has no reason to provoke an incident in the South China Sea.

Cooper also said there is no evidence that US President Donald Trump would take a tough approach and demand that China stops its militarization of the region. Although the US will continue its freedom of navigation maneuvers in the region, it will not make any ostentatious public displays, he said.

Instead, Beijing will use the US’ exercises as an excuse to stress the necessity of China’s military deployments on the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).

In practice, the US is worried that the power balance in the region is shifting in China’s favor. Washington feels that China is taking the lead in addressing the issue with ASEAN, and that continued military deployments and construction on the reefs and islands are detrimental to the strategic and security interests of the US and its allies.

This is why US officials are directing increasingly strong criticism at China for its activities in the South China Sea.

In October last year, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broached an Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at co-opting India’s help in containing China.

In December, the White House said in its National Security Strategy report that China’s “efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations and undermine regional stability.”

Last month, the US Department of Defense said in its National Defense Strategy report that China is “using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.”

The statements concerning the sea made by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in Indonesia and Vietnam imply that the Trump administration is toughening its policy.

The assessments in the US reports; its criticism of Beijing’s activities; cooperation between the US, Japan, Australia and India based on the Indo-Pacific strategy; and their co-opting of further strategic security partners in ASEAN means that friction between Beijing and Washington will become a sources of rising regional tension.

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