The situation is more alarming in the South China Sea. Here it is not just a situation of normal military maneuver, it is much more. In the South China Sea, the rise of maritime military militia of China has been the growing concern for the world and has affected many smaller states in Southeast Asia. The militia draws as such no apparent resemblance with any of the military institutions; dressed as the normal fishermen, these militia groups are however the part of much larger political landscape and tactical diplomacy.
The presence of thousands of militia assets disguised as fisherman boats in the South China Sea have tilted the power balance and have curbed the freedom of smaller independent nation states to a major extent. The militia groups are used as pressure groups against the smaller states like the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries and in case of the Philippines have even occupied some island features. It is a significant demonstration of the Chinese ability to use these non-military vessels to quickly change the facts in the marine domain.
Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, March 27, 2021. Photo by Philippine Coast Guard/via Reuters.
Another aspect of the use of these militia groups is in case of Senkaku Islands. Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan for over a century now and claimed by China, have given new role to militias. Each of the marine vessels has GPS devices attached to the ships. The signals rallied back to Beijing and data thus collected erodes away the legal argument that Japan has exclusive control on Senkaku Islands. These Chinese militia ships are never pushed back, demonstrating the Japanese don’t have exclusive legal control on these islands, we call it lawfare. By using these tactics China quietly erodes the claims of sovereignty of different nations and tries to establish itself as a sole dominant power in the South China Sea.
On the hand in order to protect the interests of many smaller nations and states like Japan, we have seen increased military activity and exclusive involvement from global powers like the U.S., France, the U.K., Australia, India and Canada. Over the past eight years we have seen an increase in the number and frequency of Fonops in the South China Sea. The U.S. ships move freely to demonstrate that the sea links in South China Sea are governed by international law and not by Chinese domestic laws. Today we see Chinese are feeling uncomfortable due to the growing presence of global power in the South China Sea and see it as a major road policy for their foreign policy implementation. China doesn’t want to go tow to tow with the U.S., and thus Chinese response is not confronting directly with the U.S. but with Japan and other allies.
Japan will ease off pressure in the South China Sea. Chinese response to U.S. Fonops is escalating in other areas with the U.S. allies and partners. At the same time, the U.S. is working with Japan, Australia, and India within the accord to have joint exercises like sea dragon exercises. This accumulates the risk of conflict among major global powers. China has to get used to the presence of foreign powers in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan, while the Fonops have to ensure the security of smaller nation sates. Rather than the U.S. just focusing on Fonops to perceive and support issues in the South China Sea, the need is to bring different kind of formulas and naval corporation into the region so that they can provide some collective capabilities to the various maritime challenges that exist in the sea of Japan, East Chinese Sea, South China Sea and likely in the Indian Ocean living forward.
Another major development on the global scale is the formation of Quad and Quad+ like associations. This achieves more importance in case of the South China sea, and Chinese influence in the Pacific. The association has developed consensus over the major security threats in South China Sea and have brought both human capital and material support to the region. Quad like associations can upset the asymmetry of power and trade balance in the South China Sea and bring more stability to the region, however with an added risk of conflict.
The ideal situation is that the U.S. and China and hopefully China and other partners within the region develop a maritime communication management system so that they can manage each other’s joint behavior. This can avoid crisis, there is a good comparison between the U.S. and Soviets, they have an avenue to communicate directly between commanders and between governments. At this stage, we don’t see this between the U.S. and China, which makes it extremely difficult to predict escalations.
*Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI) and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA). The opinions expressed are his own.