Given China’s goal of establishing the maritime silk road, its growing presence in the resource-rich South China Sea is unlikely to trigger full military action in the region, a leading analyst from US think tank Stratfor said on Monday.
China’s assertiveness could at worst trigger “short sharpshooting exchange” with countries that have overlapping claims over the disputed waters but military and diplomatic strategies will avert any likelihood of a full-blown war, Rodger Baker, vice president for East Asia and Pacific Analysis at the strategic forecasting company, told The Manila Times in an interview.
“The likelihood of a full-blown war is low. The likelihood of short sharpshooting exchange is, I wouldn’t go all the way to high, but it’s up there,” he said.
The probability will particularly “peak” during the fishing season because “maritime protein” is, in essence, what the current regional dispute is all about.
Much more than gas and oil deposits that can be found in the region, control of fishing resources is the primary issue at the root of all the rhetorics in the dispute, Baker said.
Baker is a featured speaker at the Manila Times-sponsored conference on Philippines-China Business Relations dubbed ‘Business as Usual in Unusual Times,’ set for October 29, 2014 at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City.
The Philippines and four other countries—Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan—have competing claims over some clusters of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. China claims all the islands as part of its territory.
Manila’s long-standing but largely dormant maritime conflict with Beijing came to a boil in 2012 after local authorities apprehended Chinese vessels which they said intruded into Philippine waters near Panatag or Scarborough shoal off Zambales province.
The standoff was resolved peacefully but the incident and a few others that followed strengthened Manila’s hand in seeking international arbitration over the dispute, which China insists should be solved bilaterally.
On March 30 this year, the Philippines filed a memorandum with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea to defend its case against China, further increasing tensions. But Baker noted a present “moment of pause” in the dispute between the two neighbors.
The control of airspace, next to fishing grounds or maritime lanes, is another concern in the region, Baker said.
Earlier, China announced an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, where it has engaged Japan in a territorial squabble over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands.
Baker said that whatever armed conflict may arise in the disputed China-Philippine Sea will depend on how far China sees the US getting involved in a regional dispute. He said Washington will increase its presence in the region once it sees China controlling virtually both aerial space and maritime lanes.
This is not because the US is willing to put itself in a precarious position of waging conflict with China for the Philippines, Baker said, but because it does not want to see Beijing being dominant and challenging Washington’s position as a legitimate global power.
The moment that the US, or even Japan, adds to its presence in the region, China would counter this by also sending more of its aerial and naval vessels to the contested waters.
“The number of aircraft and ships [will increase]. The South China Sea is not tiny, but it is not huge. The more [there are]operational [vessels there], the more likely there will be accidents,” Baker said.
The South China/West Philippine Sea is 3.5 million square kilometers in size.
“But to be fairly blunt, it’s very unlikely that the US is going to get involved with the Chinese over an atoll in the South China Sea,” Baker said. “So the idea that the US would encourage or accept the Philippines provoking China into some sort of confrontation to force US to that state . . . [The Philippines] is going too far with what [it thinks]the US is willing to do,” he added.
Although Washington has been very vocal about its support for the Philippines in the event of an armed confrontation with China, “it never said the way in which it will do that.”
Baker added: “It is very unlikely that there’s a confrontation in one of the small islands and the US [will engage]in a military manner. They may call for dialogue and increase their air flights and presence in the region.”
Aside from the US, China will also be looking at how Japan will react to any conflict in the West Philippine Sea.
Baker said that although Japan has shed its military image after World War II, it still has the “most capable military” in the region and will further develop that capability because of its recent decision to loosen the shackles on its pacifist Constitution that only allowed for self-defense forces.
The US, the analyst added, is “perfectly happy” with Japan’s decision to move away from a pacifist military because Washington wants Tokyo to be a balancing factor to Beijing’s rise.
“The US has been engaged in nonstop war for almost a decade. The US is going into a different mode where it’s not going to push itself as obviously. Instead, it is shifting to a traditional balance of power wherein it utilizes other powers in the region to check itself,” Baker said.
He added that China would have been “much happier” if it had cordial relations with the Philippines and if there was reduced US presence here because it would pave the way for Beijing to put its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) in place.
The MSR will open maritime trade routes between China, the South Asia and all the way up to Venice, connecting the traditional land-based Silk Road used by the Chinese in ancient times.
“It’s somewhat of a challenge to China. But at the same time, the Philippines feels a much greater physical risk of China with the expansion of Chinese [presence]compared with other Southeast Asian states,” Baker said.
“In the end, the Philippines still has defense relations with the US that shape some of its strategic thinking in regards to its relations with China,” he added.
The Philippines is Washington’s oldest treaty ally in the region. The two countries have a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that covers the controversial 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which re-allowed American access to old military bases in the country.