Is the South China Sea Warming Up, or is it Just Business as Usual?

Strategic realignment: USS Gabrielle Giffords and Philippine Navy vessel BRP Jose Rizal pictured during a joint exercise on 23 November 2023. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

A recent spate of incidents in the South China Sea involving the US, China and the Philippines points to the risks of escalation, even if a larger-scale conflict is unlikely in the short term.

On 4 December, the world woke to renewed Chinese accusations that the US was stoking tensions in the South China Sea, after US warship Gabrielle Gifford allegedly ‘infringed’ on China’s claimed waters off Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Isles. This is also the location of a Philippine coastguard lookout station situated on a rusting naval hulk, which was purposely grounded to monitor Chinese activity. Only eight days before, China was also accusing the US of a similar ‘infringement’ off the Paracel Islands by USS Hopper.

While the US Navy has stated that the USS Gabrielle Gifford was ‘conducting routine operations in international waters in the South China Sea, consistent with international law’, its presence was likely connected to a renewed regional effort to contain increasing Chinese aggression throughout the South China Sea. These events follow in the wake of commencement of joint air and sea patrols by the Philippines and Australia and a joint maritime exercise off Taiwan by the US and the Philippines.

Additionally, on 1 December the Philippines announced the opening of a new coastguard monitoring station on Thitu Island within the Spratly Isles, which are also claimed by China. In another recent development, the Philippines deployed two coastguard vessels to Whitsun Reef in response to China ‘swarming’ it with over 135 ‘militia’ fishing boats. This all points to a warming up of activity to counter China’s perceived aggressive and illegal actions across the region. Conversely, China has accused the Philippines of enlisting ‘foreign forces’ to increase regional tensions over what it perceives as bilateral issues. Beijing aims to ‘divide and conquer’ in its ongoing territorial disputes with other states across the South China Sea in order to prevent a collective response against it.

It will come as no surprise that there are benefits for the US in having Manila onside

To date, China’s actions have teetered on the edge of the direct use of force, using coastguard vessels and ‘militia’ fishing vessels while keeping its military vessels over the horizon. This has so far avoided any escalation, but is this about to change? In this year alone there have been several incidents between China and the Philippines, including the use of lasers to blind Philippine sailors (February), deployment of water cannons to stop the resupply of Philippine coastguard stations on disputed shoals (August), and the suspension of fishing rights for Philippine fishermen (September) – not to mention collisions between Chinese and Philippine coastguard vessels (October) and the amassing of Chinese militia vessels in disputed waters (December).

Unprofessional acts have also been undertaken against the US and its allies by the Chinese military, with several incidents creating cause for concern. On 26 May, a Chinese fighter flew across the front of a US reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, missing it by 121 metres. A few days later, in June, a Chinese ship cut across the bows of a US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait missing it by a mere 50 metres. In October, a Chinese fighter fired flares in front of a Canadian military helicopter, and in another incident, a Chinese jet camewithin five metres of a surveillance aircraft taking part in a UN operation to enforce sanctions against North Korea.

The timely change in leadership in the Philippines last year has seen a marked improvement in its relationship with the US. The signing of a new set of bilateral defence guidelines has helped to realign the two countries strategically against China’s aggressive territorial claims which seek to unbalance an important international waterway. The closing of this waterway would have significant implications for the stability of the global economy, and would also allow China to achieve its strategic aim of imposing its will across the waters and asserting control over the resources within the so-called nine-dash line.

It will come as no surprise that there are benefits for the US in having Manila onside. The Philippines sits immediately to the south of Taiwan and would be a key staging post for the delivery of US military aid to the country in the event of an attack by China. While it would seem imperative for the US to continue to back the Philippines given its strategic importance, it should be recognised that not every tactical skirmish needs to have a strategic implication. China’s perceived tactical successes through harassment play against its own wider strategic regional ambitions by driving countries such as the Philippines towards greater collaboration with other ASEAN states and Western allies.

The increasingly provocative nature of Chinese intercepts has done little to calm the West’s nerves, and a miscalculation here is more likely to provoke a greater international response

Despite all the rhetoric, for the moment, a business-as-usual status quo prevails, with South China Sea countries unlikely to cede their territorial claims or come together to confront China as a whole for fear of individual retribution. China is equally unlikely to stop its harassment of these countries, although it will keep this below the threshold for armed conflict in order to continue its stranglehold across the region. While the incidents in the South China Sea will not sit well in Washington, they seem a small price to pay to meet wider US ambitions, which are to keep the South China Sea open to international trade, avoid activities boiling over into armed conflict, and protect Taiwan’s autonomy.

Relations may become more strained between the US and China should an incident result in fatalities from a third-party country, but the gloves are unlikely to come off. A more harrowing scenario is a miscalculation between the US or one of its allies and China. The increasingly provocative nature of Chinese intercepts has done little to calm the West’s nerves, and a miscalculation here is more likely to provoke a greater international response. In the short term, these perceived tactical victories for China will have little effect on the US’s wider strategic aims and are therefore unlikely to spill over into anything larger.

However, in the background, China continues to build up its naval fleet, which is now the largest in the world in hull numbers but continues to trail behind the US in the number of aircraft carriers and destroyers, which provide the real firepower in any fleet. The real question is: ‘for what purpose’? Does China have a Plan B, and if so, what does this mean for the West?

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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René Balletta

First Sea Lord’s Visiting Fellow

Military Sciences

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