South China Sea: Beijing’s ‘low-intensity coercion’ and Southeast Asia’s response


This week the annual report to the US Congress on China’s Military Power was released. It noted Beijing’s use of ‘low-intensity coercion’ across the South China Sea and East China Sea. Its assessment stated that:

China often uses a progression of small, incremental steps to increase its effective control over disputed territories and avoid escalation to military conflict.

Recently those ‘incremental steps’ have been getting bigger. Southeast Asian states have reacted in turn.

Swallow Reef in the Spratly Islands, administered by Malaysia. (Flickr/Storm Crypt.)

Beijing’s well-reported land reclamation at seven sites in the South China Sea has quickened in pace. According to US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, China has ‘intensified the militarisation’ of these islands and reefs. This has included the construction of a military-sized airstrip and at least one other non-military airstrip.

Reports last week that China is already ‘practicing’ an informal Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over waters disputed with the Philippines have raised the stakes. That report, by a Filipino Vice Admiral to a Senate hearing, noted that China had warned Philippine air force and navy aircraft from flying over disputed waters on at least six occasions.

The formal declaration of a South China Sea ADIZ would be a game changer.


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