Asean, China and the South China Sea


Two centuries since the Napoleonic wars, we are once again confronting the spectre of conflict, this time in Asia’s seascape, particularly in the South China Sea, where China has been challenging America’s decades-long naval hegemony in Asia.

As I wrote in a previous book, Asia’s New Battlefield , if there were to be a third world war, it will most likely take place in our maritime backyard. After all, as veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has pointed out, it’s in the South China Sea where the parameters of US-China competition are most pronounced.

Without a question, there are legitimate reasons for concern.

But should we really fear war in the near future?

President Rodrigo Duterte thinks so. He has repeatedly claimed that if smaller claimant states such as the Philippines were to assert their rights, China would resort to armed conflict. A more careful analysis of China’s foreign policy, however, reveals that the Asian powerhouse is the last country to wish for war.

First of all, any armed confrontation would severely disrupt China’s export-oriented economy, since the country depends on the South China Sea for a vast majority of its trade as well as energy imports.

Second, any war in the South China Sea, especially against a weaker and helpless adversary like the Philippines, would irrevocably damage China’s regional standing, sowing panic among other smaller states and forcing them to start hedging their bets by fully aligning with America.

This would not only represent a soft-power disaster for China, but would also immediately tilt the regional balance of power in America’s favour.

Third, any war in the South China Sea would be used as a pretext by America, Japan, India, Australia and major European powers to step up their military presence in the area.

This would immediately end China’s current position of dominance and test the mettle of China’s People’s Liberation Army, which hasn’t fought a single war since the end of the Cold War.

As Sun Tzu, China’s legendary strategic thinker, counselled in The Art Of War: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

This is precisely why Beijing’s strategy is to intimidate smaller claimant states such as the Philippines through psychological warfare.

We shouldn’t fall for this trick. Rule of law is the best and only way to manage and resolve the disputes, short of accepting Chinese maritime hegemony.