Global defense chiefs meeting in a plush hotel in Singapore on the weekend were faced with one of Asia’s biggest looming security challenges, but left without any tangible sense of how to tackle it.
The elephant in the room at the Shangri-La security forum was a uninhabited shoal about 230 kilometers (143 miles) from the Philippine coast, a triangle of reef and rocks that barely stretches above high tide. Occupied by China since 2012, the Scarborough Shoal threatens to become the biggest flash point in disputes over the South China Sea.
U.S. Admiral John Richardson raised the prospect of China building on the shoal in March and the following month the U.S. sent air force planes into its vicinity. An airstrip there would add to China’s network of runways and surveillance sites that U.S. Pacific Command chief Harry Harris said last year would create “a mechanism by which China would have de facto control over the South China Sea in any scenario short of war.”
The potential motivation for China to build on the shoal is a coming international arbitration ruling on a case brought by the Philippines against its South China Sea claims. China didn’t take part in the hearings, arguing the tribunal lacks jurisdiction.
If the non-binding ruling is unfavorable to China, it might respond by putting structures on the shoal to give it a military outpost right on the Philippines’ door. Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo said on Sunday China will not accept the tribunal’s ruling, expected by mid year.
While countries including the U.S. have warned China against doing so, it’s unclear how they might respond if it it did. Speaking at the Singapore forum, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. as an ally of the Philippines would take action, without elaborating on the consequences of a Chinese move.
Carter said on Saturday he had nothing new to say on any Chinese activities in the area around the shoal, but “any actions there would be provocative and destabilizing.” Southeast Asian defense chiefs avoided commenting on the possibility.
China contests more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in seaborne trade passes every year, overlapping claims from the likes of Vietnam and Malaysia. It has reclaimed 3,200 acres of land on seven features in the Spratly Islands and added some military infrastructure.
Carter “was very careful to choose his words to leave the impression that there would be some action taken, but not to draw any red lines,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is a critically important question,” she said. “I believe they want to restrict U.S. access over time.”
The U.S. has been wary of setting red lines after the Obama administration promised in 2012 that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his people he would cross one. After his regime killed at least six people and injured dozens in a chlorine gas attack, the U.S. failed to act, undermining its credibility.
The U.S. says it doesn’t take sides on the South China Sea claims, but its officials have sought to deter China from consolidating its hold over the waters. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday in Mongolia the U.S. would consider the establishment of an air defense identification zone over the area to be “provocative and destabilizing,” repeating Carter’s phrase.
China declared an ADIZ over part of the East China Sea in 2013, where it claims islands contested by Japan. Analysts consider China as yet unequipped to patrol such a zone over the South China Sea, but the possibility it might one day do so has spooked countries that border the waters.
To deter China from installing more military equipment on the Spratlys, the U.S. since October has sent warships three times within the 12 nautical mile zone around several artificial islands China has created, to demonstrate the right to transit what it considers international territory.
“The South China Sea’s freedom of navigation hasn’t been impeded because of the territorial disputes,” Admiral Sun said in a speech Sunday. “If freedom of navigation is undermined then China would not be to blame.”
China’s foreign ministry says it has the right to build on the features because they are its “indisputable” territory and it’s mainly to provide civilian services like search and rescue. Still, security analysts are concerned China will continue taking actions that are too minor to prompt a response, but which over time equate to substantial change.
"The question is whether we should allow China to establish an exclusion zone in the South China Sea, which would effectively turn it into a Chinese lake,” Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said on the sidelines of the forum. “Who knows what happens down the road,” he said. “China may impose restrictions on other countries, depending on what is its whim.”
For the moment, it isn’t likely that China will rush to build on Scarborough, according to Luo Yuan, a retired PLA major general and deputy general secretary of the China Society of Military Science in Beijing.
“For the time being China is trying to maintain the status quo, mainly because of the size of the project, the investment required, and the sensitivity of the issue,” Luo said on the sidelines of the meeting.
But the question that remains is, should China decide to proceed, how can the U.S. and others prevent it from going ahead without risking setting off a full-scale conflict.
“I would like to think that what Carter said was a polite way of publicly alluding to a red line that has been privately communicated,” Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said on the sidelines of the forum.
“Nothing will roll back their physical presence but if China doesn’t achieve some kind of de facto extension of authority as a consequence of the island building, then that is still a significant effect that the international community has achieved.”