China is far from a monolithic power. Its rapid ascent has transformed it into both a centripetal force of integration as well as a centrifugal force of fragmentation. Earlier this year, China managed to pull off a major strategic coup against the United States (U.S.) by astutely convincing almost all relevant economies in Asia and the West to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite Washington’s vehement opposition.

The Obama administration was left bitter and isolated, as China flagrantly chipped away at the United States’ historical position as the underwriter of the global financial order. Most countries, pragmatically recognizing the necessity for Chinese capital, cautiously welcomed the AIIB initiative as a much-needed — albeit insufficient — remedy to the glaring infrastructure spending gap in the region. At the same time, China has also become a polarizing force, progressively contributing to deterioration in longstanding maritime disputes in the Western Pacific.

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue certainly lived up to expectations, as Washington and its allies squared off with (an isolated) China over the latter’s massive construction activities and growing military presence in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, non-claimant states such as Singapore, the security conference’ host, showed little hesitance to express their deepening worries over the trajectory of the ongoing maritime disputes. With few signs of compromise on the horizon and as Chinese military officials openly dangle the option of imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, Washington and its allies are scrambling for an appropriate response against further Chinese provocation.

Clash of Titans

The Dialogue was certainly an international diplomatic debut for the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, whose highly-anticipated speech came on the heels of a weeks-long campaign by Pentagon to challenge Chinese construction activities. By deploying surveillance aircraft (along with media personnel) and warships close to China’s artificially constructed features in the Spratly chain of islands, the U.S. Navy has been openly contesting Beijing’s sovereignty claims to these features. It is also a direct rebuke to China’s militarization of the disputes, with reports suggesting Beijing has deployed motorized artillery pieces and other defensive systems to the area.

Carter reiterated Washington’s concern about any Chinese-imposed “restrictions on international air or maritime transit” and emphasized how his country “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as US forces do all over the world.” He rejected any Chinese sovereignty claim over artificially-altered low-tide elevations, which are not subject to appropriation and can’t generate their won territorial waters under international law. Carter did not rule out the possibility of deploying American military assets into the 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed features.

Clearly, the Pentagon’s chief concerns are freedom of navigation, both for merchant fleets and American naval forces, as well as the prevention of the imposition of a Chinese ADIZ in the area, which could imperil the position of treaty allies such as the Philippines, who occupy advanced features and facilities in the area. Predictably, the Chinese defense delegation countered by trying to present Beijing’s activities in the area as “justified, legitimate and reasonable.” Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of China’s Academy of Military Science dismissed any suggestion that Beijing is undermining freedom of navigation in the area, implausibly claiming the region has remained stable and peaceful because of China’s great restraint.  China’s top delegate, Admiral Sun Jianguo tried to put a spin on China’s construction activities by claiming Beijing was offering “international public services” through its sprawling facilities in the area, while Cui Tiankai, China’s Ambassador to Washington, blamed the United States for escalating South China Sea tensions.

In short, China denied that there was any problem. China is not only out of step with international norms, as Carter pointed out, but also with much of the neighborhood. Not a single country, not even China’s loyal allies, tried to openly justify or defend China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Common Concern

Singapore has traditionally guarded its prosperity and security by adopting an astute equi-balancing strategy towards Beijing and Washington. As a trade-dependent economy, surrounded by bigger nations and historical rivals such as Malaysia, Singapore has relied on a largely symbiotic Sino-American relationship to secure a conducive environment for sustained growth and prosperity in the region.

In recent years, however, Singapore has been alarmed by China’s maritime assertiveness. In response, it has granted greater rotational access to American warships, allowing for permanent stationing of American Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), and has called for greater American strategic commitment to the region. In his keynote address, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned about the “vicious cycle” in the South China Sea and emphasized how the disputes should be urgently “managed and contained”.

With Singapore soon taking over as the ASEAN-China country coordinator, he pushed for both sides to conclude a Code of Conduct (COC) “as soon as possible,” and called on “all parties adhere to international law, including the UN Convention on Law of the Sea.” Citing “historical rights”, China has opposed the application of UNCLOS to the disputes and has repeatedly dragged its feet on negotiating a COC.

Cognizant of the growing anxieties of many Southeast Asian nations, Carter unveiled a $425 million defense initiative aimed at enhancing the naval and coast guard capabilities of allies and strategic partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN). Key regional allies such as Australia have also reiterated their determination to continue patrols in the South China Sea, while Japan, thanks to the revised U.S.-Japan bilateral defense guideline, can more credibly consider the option of conducting joint aerial patrols in the South China Sea.

China’s latest white paper, however, mentions “offshore waters defense and open seas protection,” and clearly reflects the fact that Beijing is determined to pursue its territorial ambitions and strategic interests in the high seas, especially in adjacent waters. The ultimate challenge, therefore, is to mobilize enough regional support and deploy necessary military assets against further Chinese adventurism — but without triggering an open conflict. This will be an uphill battle, for sure.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.