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South China Sea: Storm in a tea cup

3 May 2012 14:28

Brendan Taylor is Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

It's more than flattering to attract attention from Michael Wesley and Hugh White, two scholars I greatly admire. But its also left me feeling a little like a shrimp caught between two whales, as the Koreans like to say!

It's impossible to do justice to the points Michael and Hugh raise in a single post. So let me try to first address Michael's concerns.

I should start by saying that my scepticism regarding the strategic significance of the South China Sea is largely a reaction to the flurry of recent op-eds and essays identifying this area as a potential trigger for great power conflict. I doubt that such a trigger really exists, certainly not one with the potential to impact upon Asia's larger strategic order.

The reasons for my scepticism become clear when we compare the South China Sea with Asia's two most widely accepted flashpoints, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. Richard Bush and Michael O'Hanlon have argued that the problem of Taiwan could spark a nuclear war involving 1.5 billion people and produce a fundamental change in the international order. Similar estimates suggest that a Korean conflict would cost somewhere in the vicinity of US$ 1trillion and 500,000 lives during its first 90 days.

It's difficult to envisage a scenario where a skirmish in the South China Sea could erupt into a conflict of that magnitude. For this reason, I just don't think it's a real flashpoint.

Second, Michael is convinced that the South China Sea is a 'core interest' for Beijing and cites Zhou Enlai to substantiate this claim. Much more important, I reckon, is the more recent debate regarding whether the Chinese Government has even identified the South China Sea as a 'core interest', as many media outlets and some US officials suggest. One could certainly not imagine a similar degree of ambiguity around Beijing's clearly stated 'core interest' in Taiwan.

But the much larger point in Michael's post is about the role Southeast Asian states play in determining regional order. For Australia, the notion that small and middle powers can influence international order is understandably attractive. Yet I'm not as convinced as Michael that Southeast Asians are either willing or able to play such a role.

Michael's claim is that Southeast Asian acquiescence would allow China to dominate the Indo-Pacific. Yet very few Southeast Asian governments would ever seriously consider throwing their lot in with Beijing. I'd argue that this is because historical experience has hardwired a propensity to 'hedge' almost irrevocably onto their strategic DNA.

Commentators like Andrew Shearer, who see Southeast Asians already running into the arms of America, also miss this point. To be sure, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam have each inched closer to Washington in the face of Chinese aggressiveness. Yet all three have simultaneously deepened their engagement with Beijing.

Vietnam established a new 'Strategic Defence Security Dialogue' with China in 2010 and in late 2011 the two countries agreed on principles for settling maritime disputes. Indonesia established a 'strategic partnership' with China long before doing so with the US or Australia, while there is evidence of growing foreign policy coordination between Beijing and Jakarta. Manila's vocal opposition to Beijing's South China Sea claims has also been accompanied by closer engagement with Beijing.

What this suggests is that America's security ties with Southeast Asia are probably about as good as they're going to get. Will this matter to Washington? Not a great deal, I'd argue, given Southeast Asia's lack of genuine strategic import and weight. Hillary Clinton's latest announcement that the US won't take sides in the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines confirms this, as well as the fact that the South China Sea is simply not a 'core interest' for Washington.

Photo by Flickr user delphwynd.