Covering around 3,500,000 square kilometers of area positioned between the Straits of Karimata and Malaca to the Straits of Taiwan; the South China Sea has been irrepressible to maritime security disputes and has become an aspiration for various regional as well as extra-regional states. The politico-maritime order of the South China Sea has become a complicated web of external and internal dynamics, due to its geographical proximity. The sea is estimated to hold 11 billion barrels of crude oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits and encompassing around $3.4 trillion worth of global trade each year. The South China Sea has not been a source of concern for China only; it also has other antagonized claimants including Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippine and Vietnam.
The US on 7th of January 2019, sent its Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (warship) ‘USS Mc Campbell’ near the Parcel Islands of South China Sea, under its self-proclaimed Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). One must keep in mind that up till now the US has conducted six FONOPs altogether since May 2017.
China claims its severity over almost 80% of the South China Sea according to the nine-dash line. About 3,200 acres of new land in the Spratly has been created by China artificially. China’s maritime advancements over several islands, zones, reefs, the prospects of enhanced economic opportunities and availability of excessive untapped natural resources, has increased the probability of extra-regional states (US) to influence the regional security patterns. Therefore, China and the US are persistently trying to tilt the regional balance of power in their favor, thus ensuing an environment of strategic competition amid great powers, ultimately threatening regional peace.
Although the claimants of South China Sea started claiming their sovereignty since 1970s, however, the US military activities and naval presence in the South China Sea became more obvious in 2018. Let’s take a start from the beginning of the year in January 2019. The US on 7th of January 2019, sent its Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (warship) ‘USS Mc Campbell’ near the Parcel Islands of South China Sea, under its self-proclaimed Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). One must keep in mind that up till now the US has conducted six FONOPs altogether since May 2017. The very next day, on 8th January, 2019, China sent its DF-26 ballistic missile in the northwest region (far western Gobi Desert and Tibetan Plateau regions).The US military activities were not limited and later, on January 17, 2019 US Navy destroyer and a Royal Navy frigate jointly concluded another drill in South China Sea.
Subsequently perusing its hegemony, China has also militarized various reefs of Spratly island chain with port runways and other military infrastructure. On January 29, China announced the completion of construction of a rescue center at Fiery Cross Reef with aims for navigation, protection and transport safety. Continuing to that in January, 2019, both the US and China were involved in different drills and patrolling activities in the South China Sea respectively.
Continuing with different patrolling and drill operations, on June 29, 2019, China launched the first series of its antiship ballistic missile tests in the South China Sea. However it is yet to be confirmed that whether that missile was DF-21 or DF-26 ‘Guam Carrier Killer’. DF-26 (Dong Feng-26) is a solid-fueled surface to surface Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile with a range of 3,000-4,000 km. Having a yield of 5-10kt and an inertial guidance system the name ‘Guam’ signifies that the weapon can strike at the key US base Guam, carrying up to 18,000 kg of conventional warhead without going nuclear. The missile is also capable of carrying three nuclear warheads hitting the target separately at multiple points. China’s DF-26 can provide it an edge in South China Sea.
Serious concerns are being raised by the US with this test and US officials reported that they were already aware of these tests. In a statement the US representative Mike Gallagher said, ‘Through its illegitimate efforts to build and militaries islands in the region, the Chinese Communist Party has aggressively attempted to control these critical waterways and undermined international law conversely’. Contrary to the US, China does not admit that it has conducted any test and responded it as a normal military exercise to train its soldiers.
In a recent statement,talking about his priorities for dealing with China, Mark Milley, the US Joint Chief of Staff, in his confirmation ceremony on 11th July 2019 stated ‘I think the very No. 1 for me and No. 1 stated for the Department of Defense is the modernization, recapitalization of the nation’s nuclear triad. I think that’s critical’. He also expressed that ‘it would be “helpful” to place conventionally armed, ground-launched intermediate-range missiles in the Indo-Pacific region to help deter Chinese interests in the region’. Irrespective of the fact, according to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Intermediate Range Missiles (IRMs) are banned. However, such policy statements would nonetheless, accelerate the tensions in South China Sea, and eventually create an atmosphere an arms race thus promoting strategic instability.
Although, China’s splashdown of anti ship ballistic missile (DF-26 and DF 21) in South China Sea affirms its sovereignty over the disputed islands however, the uncertainty of DF-26 (if carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead) could inadvertently escalate into a nuclear retaliation by the US. Therefore, leading to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and, posing serious challenges to the deterrence equilibrium of Asia Pacific region.
US’ aspirations for nuclear modernization, IRM and its predominant position in South China Sea constitute a grave deterrence to the Chinese interests in the South China Sea. China’s apprehensions vis-à-vis US revolve around its FONOPs in South China Sea which undermines Chinese security in Pacific waters. Clash of interests could create problems for the regional stability of South China Sea and other extra regional player’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as a big chunk of international trade passes through this piece of hot water.
Taking into account the above scenario Sino-US rift for power has been continuously jeopardizing the political and strategic dynamics of the South China Sea. Beijing’s increased military dominance, its plan for starting a nuclear power plant in the disputed island by 2021 and US’s FONOPs all are a matter of great importance for regional peace and international order. Although, China’s splashdown of anti ship ballistic missile (DF-26 and DF 21) in South China Sea affirms its sovereignty over the disputed islands however, the uncertainty of DF-26 (if carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead) could inadvertently escalate into a nuclear retaliation by the US. Therefore, leading to Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and, posing serious challenges to the deterrence equilibrium of Asia Pacific region.
Moreover China is building 20 nuclear power plants in order to provide energy and electricity for its artificially created islands. This depicts how much serious China is in its policies and vital concerns in the South China Sea. These measures will also enhance China’s pressure on littoral states of the South China Sea, politically and diplomatically. This will limit their access in the Pacific waters and create an impetus for them to vacate their claimed islands. Another risk is that these nuclear power plants could be used for nuclear triad. There are risks of nuclear safety and security as well. As a response it will also intensify US’ efforts of building alliances with the regional states, frequent participation in military drills and FONOPs to ensure its presence in South China Sea in order to counter China’s supremacy. Hence forth, patrolling US’ maritime forces in disputed waters, its unnecessary interference in regional politics, support to smaller claimants in improving their maritime capabilities, will affect the internal relations of other claimant vis-à-vis China, resulting in rising geostrategic competition and arms race in South China Sea. The claimant of South China Sea should resolve their conflicts themselves through regional platforms and dialogues rather than allowing external powers to make their decisions, thus, promoting regional integration, international peace and stability.
Qurat ul Ain Hafeez is the Research Coordinator at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She has done her M.Phil in International Relations from the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.