Originally Published 2017-02-08 09:27:40 Published on Feb 08, 2017
Security dynamics in the South China Sea – A view from Singapore

Tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) reached a high-point after the Permanent Court of Arbitration announced on 12 July 2016 its ruling in favour of the Philippines, ending the almost three-year legal battle initiated by then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s administration against China.<1>

Although the courtroom battle had followed a standoff in Scarborough Shoal in April 2012 and reportedly been bitter, the tribunal’s decision did not lead to an instant deterioration in Philippines-China ties. In the aftermath of the decision, Manila desisted from criticising China’s SCS stance, even as Washington held back from any escalatory moves. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and China too, issued joint statements espousing a desire peace and stability in the SCS.<2>

Soon after, newly installed Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing where he met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, leading to a thaw in the frostiness that had followed Manila’s legal challenge. The rapprochement appears to hold well, backstopped by generous Chinese investments for the Philippines. Most importantly, China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels have not been obstructing Philippine fishermen operating at the Scarborough Shoal for the first time since 2012, which seems to attest to the success of Duterte’s policy towards attaining a modus vivendi.

The current easing of tensions between China and the Philippines allows other concerned parties – both claimant and non-claimant states – some breathing space following years of high-anxiety over an imminent risk of armed confrontation in the disputed waters. With its non-claimant status and peculiar geostrategic location within a somewhat volatile neighbourhood, Singapore regards as a positive development the disinclination of SCS parties for overt aggression. Yet it would be simplistic to say that the tiny island city-state can rest assured that the situation will not deteriorate any time soon; for incidents in recent weeks have highlighted that the current easing of SCS tensions is at best tenuous.

An Uneasy Peace in the SCS

Coinciding with Duterte’s visit to China, the US Navy destroyer USS Decatur conducted the first FONOPS in waters close to Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands, much to Beijing’s consternation. This was a timely reminder that notwithstanding the Sino-Philippine rapprochement, the SCS dispute is more complex than outwardly appears. Singapore realises that there is a prominent dimension of the Great Power rivalry in the SCS, with both China and the US jockeying hard for advantageous positions. Chinese leaders realise that it is only American military presence in Southeast Asia that can undermine the PLA Navy’s physical control of the SCS.

But Washington too is keenly aware of Beijing’s political game in Southeast Asia. Since the 1990s, Beijing has steadily accumulated its military force projection capabilities in the SCS. Through steady and massive investments into the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) modernisation, it has managed to enhance the ability to wage a limited SCS war if necessary. After the turn of the century, Beijing has not only persisted in the PLA modernisation efforts but also began beefing up its maritime law enforcement (MLE) capacities. Like its navy counterpart, the CCG has also been accumulating new hardware.

Beijing realises that its SCS interests depend largely on its ability to sustain military presence in the littoral seas. It has thus embarked on a massive island-building and fortification program aimed at creating forward outposts. These artificial islands boast 3,000-metre-long airstrips and facilities to enable civilian and military operations. The military build-up at China’s new islands is of a nature that cannot be challenged by any other regional claimants without major US military involvement. Even so, neutralising these static dispositions will require a massive military strike, or a blockade of PLA reinforcement ‘bridge’ across the SCS.

Of course, considering the deep Sino-US economic interdependence, this extreme scenario appears unlikely. It also remains questionable whether Washington would “show its hand” by engaging Beijing in an armed conflict merely for the sake of freedom of navigation, particularly when US policymakers have repeatedly stressed that they take no sides as far as the merits of conflicting claims in the SCS.

Nonetheless, the risk of inadvertent or accidental incidents in the SCS is real. Many consider the problem as a manifestation of long simmering differences over military activity in the region. These encompass conflicting interpretations of foreign military operations in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Needless to say, it has been the cause of many past Sino-US incidents, notably the EP-3 incident in April 2001 and the USNS Impeccable incident in March 2009.

With or without the SCS disputes, therefore, an enduring US military presence in the region would imply a hardening of animosity between Beijing and Washington. For Singapore, the SCS is more than just a set of sovereignty and jurisdictional disputes, or even marine resource competition. It regards this critical space as having a deeper strategic significance.

Singapore’s Security Stance

It may be asked why Singapore should be concerned about security in the Southeastern littorals, when it is neither a SCS claimant state nor a US security ally. The country’s SCS stance has always been consistent: as a non-claimant, it emphasises taking no sides and calls for the peaceful resolution of differences. A strong advocate of international law and rules-based order, Singapore is keen for a legal resolution mechanism for the SCS disputes. However, being a small island country without many natural resources, it is highly dependent on the vital sea lines of communications (SLOCs) for survival and prosperity. Therefore, the country avidly advocates freedom of navigation and over-flight in the SCS.<3> Besides rules-based order and military self-help, Singapore also depends on a network of foreign defence and security partnerships. The US remains a primary security partner – a relationship which began during the Cold War and qualitatively enhanced over time.<4>

A digression into history might, in fact, prove instructive. In the 1990s, Singapore had never featured in the SCS spats. It was a time when US military dominance remained unchallenged even as China struggled with the pains of economic liberalisation and PLA modernisation. When the island state decided to grant US military access to its facilities following the latter’s withdrawal from the Philippines, it received minimal blowback from Beijing. Whatever little criticism came its way was from immediate neighbours and even that died down soon after. While the Mischief Reef incidents in 1995 and 1998 saw Beijing expand its SCS presence, the PLA remained in no position to challenge US military power.

In the years that followed, Singapore maintained its consistent position without having to make a clear strategic choice between China and the US. Each occupied a particular pole-position in Singaporean policymakers’ priority lists – China, for economics; US for security.<5> In the early 2000s, this remained the case, even as the US was preoccupied with the Global War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Following the signing of the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) in 2005 that recognised Singapore as a ‘Major Security Cooperation Partner’, the situation slightly changed. Fortunately for Singaporean leaders, between 2000 and 2008 Beijing had a bigger fish to fry. Beijing was then devoted to deterring President Chen Shui-bian from declaring Taiwan’s independence. Since China and ASEAN had inked the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in November 2002, tensions had eased to a considerable degree.

However, after 2008 the situation began to steadily deteriorate. The election of Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou as president in March 2008, allowed Beijing to devote far greater focus on the SCS. A year later, the Philippines and Vietnam’s submissions of new SCS baseline claims, provided the spark for an escalation in tensions. By 2012, as the Obama administration announced its ‘Asia pivot’ and the intent to shift up to 60-percent of American naval forces to the Asia-Pacific, the South China Sea was in dead-heat. Meanwhile, the PLA had made noteworthy strides in its modernisation, boasting increasingly capable air and naval forces that enhanced its ability to project and sustain force in the SCS; its successfully seizing of de facto control over the Scarborough Shoal reflected that reality.

Faced with few alternatives, Singapore threw in its support – both in word and deed – for the US, backing its rebalancing strategy. In 2013, the country enhanced US Navy access to its naval facilities by allowing the rotational deployment of advanced Littoral Combat Ships – some of which then began active ‘routine patrols’ in the SCS, often shadowed by Chinese warships. In 2015, Singapore and the US inked the enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, building on the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding and the 2005 SFA. This new pact envisioned further qualitative enhancements of US military presence in the region, including the rotational deployment to Singapore of US Navy P-8A Poseidon long-range maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft – a prominent workhorse over the SCS and involved in several close brushes with Chinese forces.

Despite its consistent exposition of a neutralist SCS stance, therefore, Singapore continually finds itself in an awkward position on the matter. As Chinese observers saw it, Singapore, whose population is predominantly Chinese, commits the mistake of not siding with Beijing on the territorial disputes.<6> Ruefully, for Singaporean policymakers, the SCS serves as a litmus test of allegiance, and a significant marker in the containment and counter-containment dynamic that simmers between China and the US.<7>

In late September 2016, a controversy erupted when the island city-state’s envoy to Beijing, Ambassador Stanley Loh wrote a letter in response to a Global Times article deeming its claims on Singapore’s alleged attempts to insert a mention of the PCA award in a joint statement following the 17th Non-Aligned Movement, as “false and unfounded”.<8> The Chinese foreign ministry rose to defend the nationalist tabloid.<9> An influential Chinese defence adviser, Professor Jin Yinan, a director at the PLA National Defence University’s strategic research institute, even suggested that Beijing consider imposing sanctions, as retaliation to make Singapore “pay the price for seriously damaging China’s interests.”<10>

The bilateral spat worsened later in November 2016 when a batch of Singapore Army infantry carrier vehicles was detained by local authorities during a trans-shipment in Hong Kong. At the time of writing this piece in late December, the vehicles remained in custody despite numerous diplomatic representations by the Singapore Government. Even though the seizure was said to have been attributed to a violation of Hong Kong’s Import and Export Ordinance,<11> this incident could have reflected the increasingly strained ties over numerous issues, not just those related to the SCS or Taiwan, but Beijing’s perception of Singapore as being part of the US rebalancing strategy and thus part of Washington’s effort to contain China.<12>Singapore is thus sucked into this vortex, by dint of its geostrategic circumstances and key political choices to align itself more closely with the US on the defence and security front during the Cold War till now, as well as the current reality of China’s growing economic and military power and, consequently, growing self-confidence in asserting its interest.

The Way Forward

While Singapore would not ever want to make a choice between China and the US, it is a prospect its policymakers would want to consider seriously. Their decision would depend on a host of factors, including a scenario where the US would lose its preeminent position as the world’s superpower, giving way to a Pax Sinica order – an unforeseen proposition for Singapore’s policy elite.<13> And yet, it may be in the interests of Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries to help preserve the status quo. Increasingly closer diplomatic and economic links with China does not change the reality that smaller regional states are dependent on the US for their security. To understand the emerging dynamic, Singaporean policymakers need look no further than Vietnam: Hanoi recognises the value of a military relationship with the US as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China. Singapore might then look to maintain and even enhance its existing defense and security relations with the US. Of course, Singapore-China defense and security relations, which have seen significant improvement in recent years, will continue to be an area of focus. But it is unlikely to overtake Singapore’s military cooperation with the US, notwithstanding Beijing’s attempts to position itself as the preeminent power in the South China Sea.<14>

Besides advocating a rules-based order and helping sustain ASEAN’s role in the regional security architecture, Singapore knows it will face the occasional storm arising from the Sino-US rivalry. With the recent election of Donald Trump as the new US president, more uncertainty in the SCS is a likely prospect. The island state, however, realises that the Philippines’ attempts to scale back its security relations with the US – particularly the decision to scrap two of the key bilateral military exercises CARAT and PHIBLEX – will require Manila to facilitate a durable American military presence – if only to hedge against growing geopolitical uncertainties. This could put Singapore on a potential collision course with China on the diplomatic front. It is a conundrum that Singaporean policymakers must confront.

That said, Singapore can continue to play a constructive role in preserving and enhancing regional peace and stability. The SCS disputes look set to persist, and the current tranquility cannot be taken for granted. The priority for Singaporean diplomats would be to devote efforts towards managing the disputes and their associated dynamics, ensuring that they do not result in interstate tragedies in the SCS. For long, Singapore has been a strong advocate of Asia-Pacific multilateralism and its active role as the coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations is likely to continue. While supporting initiatives for confidence-building and security cooperation, Singapore will want to be innovative in conceiving ways to preempt the potential dangers in the SCS.

There is an expectation in some quarters that ASEAN and China will establish a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the SCS. Some observers are hopeful that the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) – promulgated during the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014 – will be expanded to include MLE forces. In this event, it appears Singapore could push for regional discussions and eventual adoption of important confidence and security-building measures. In particular, it is likely that Singaporean policymakers will push for passive mitigation initiatives to prevent the proliferation of submarines in the South Asian littorals. Earlier in May 2015, the Singaporean Navy had attempted unsuccessfully to push regional maritime forces to agree on the institution of such measures. It now appears Singapore will make a renewed bid to gather like-minded partner nations in the region. Many will hope the new initiative will gradually expand to include other willing parties.

MLE forces have seen much action in the South China Sea – with many enforcement agencies spearheading their respective governments’ efforts to protect their geopolitical stakes in the region. These are organised, trained and equipped differently from the navies, and are meant primarily to execute their countries’ domestic laws. It is possible that the discussion about expanding CUES might be hampered because of contextual differences between navies and MLE forces, as well as the fact that regional states define ‘coast guards’ differently. The main issue of contention is that many CGs are seen to include maritime militia forces which adopt an aggressive but unaccountable posture in the SCS. Their governments are likely to be unwilling to acknowledge their functions, and even include them in the expanded CUES ambit.<15> While an expanded CUES may be initially promulgated to first include coastguards and subsequently expanding to other forces such as maritime militia, Singapore can play a constructive role in facilitating constructive discussions on the matter.

Finally, Singapore should continue to strongly advocate for inclusive regional arrangements to foster maritime cooperation, leveraging on its geographical, operational and diplomatic advantages. There are notable pre-existing regional mechanisms that can help facilitate such forms of cooperation, but even creating new mechanisms could prove useful. The Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) is a good example of Singapore’s potential to reinvigorate an existing mechanism, actively promoting cooperation between maritime authorities of ASEAN member states and the eight dialogue partners, including MLE forces. One potential area for the EAMF to serve as a useful mechanism would be fishery management in the SCS. The expanded forum could even emulate the Arctic Council’s fostering of functional cooperation between coast guards. Since it has no direct fishery interests in the SCS, Singapore could help catalyse discussions between other involved parties.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Singapore. He researches primarily on maritime security and naval affairs in Southeast Asia

This article was originally published in GP-ORF's Line in the Waters

<1> South China Sea: Court rules in favor of Philippines over China, CNN, July 12, 2016 http://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/12/asia/china-philippines-south-china-sea/

<2> China, ASEAN vow to promote peace, stability in South China Sea, Xinhua, July 25, 2016 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-07/25/c_135538791.htm

<3>See for instance, Minister George Yeo's Media Interview Following the Closing Ceremony of the 43rd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Related Meetings, 23 July 2010, Hanoi, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, 25 July 2010 https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/cairo/press_statements_speeches/embassy-news-and-press-releases/2010/201007/press_201007_2.html

<4>See for instance, Opening Remarks by Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence at the Joint Press Conference with Secretary William Cohen, Ministry of Defence, Singapore, January 15, 1998.

<5>Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Interview with US Television Journalist Charlie Rose On 14 April 2010 in the United States, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, 14 April 2010.

<6>For instance, read Liu Zhun, Spat reveals true stance of Singapore to Chinese public, Global Times, 30 September 2016.

<7> In response to the P-8 rotational deployment to Singapore, Global Times, a nationalist tabloid affiliated to the ruling CPC, wrote in an editorial that this move “is clearly aimed at China, and Singapore is thus moving closer to the US in terms of security. See, US spy plane new disturbance for SE Asia, Global Times, 10 December 2015

<8>Full Text of Ambassador Stanley Loh's Letter to Global Times Editor-In-Chief Hu Xijin, in response to an article by Global Times (Chinese) dated 21 September 2016, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, September 26, 2016. https://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/media_centre/press_room/pr/2016/201609/full-text-of-ambassador-stanley-loh-s-letter-to-global-times-edi.html

<9>Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang's Regular Press Conference on September 27, 2016, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China

<10>“Defence adviser escalates Singapore row,” South China Morning Post, October 1, 2016.

<11>Clifford Lo and Phila Siu, Singapore military carriers 'left off cargo manifest', South China Morning Post, December 1, 2016.

<12>Some Chinese literature for example contained maps which espoused a different take on the “island chains” – regarded by some Chinese analysts as Washington’s strategy to contain the country. See for example, Jiang Yu, Island Chain and Chinese Navy’s Going to the High Seas, Shipborne Weapons, December 2008 issue, p. 29.

<13>Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's interview with Caixin, 7 Feb 2014, at the Istana, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, 7 February 2014; “PM Lee: I am sure the US will bounce back,” Channel NewsAsia, July 1, 2014

<14> US expected to keep up Asian military presence, Straits Times, 7 April 2012

<15>Swee Lean Collin Koh, Expanded CUES: A Worthwhile Idea but Challenging Exercise? Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 352, Washington, DC: East-West Center, September 15, 2016.

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