DESPITE the frequent skirmishes involving coastal fishermen and Chinese militia fishing boats, and Beijing’s aggressive “creation” of islands and cities in the South China Sea, “there will be no war in the South China Sea in the next 10 years,” a maritime expert said on Friday.
Gregory Poling, senior fellow and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency International Initiative (AMTI) Center for Strategic and International Studies, shared this outlook at the conclusion of a virtual talk on maritime challenges in Southeast Asia, titled “Sailing a Course Through Contested Waters.”
The panelists included experts from the United States, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Poling said that after reading many of the questions sent by listeners, “a lot of them involved whether the US and China will fight a war in the SCS. I’m just going to say, ‘no.’”
However, he added words of caution: “The fisherfolks are the canaries in the coalmine here,” a metaphor for an advanced warning of danger.
“They don’t have 10 years, there will be a cascading fish stock collapse in the South China Sea [SCS] in far less than 10 years unless something is done now. So the movement to take out this fight is now.”
Poling was referring to two separate incidents in 2019 and this year involving Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats that were allegedly rammed by Chinese fishing militia and sunk, leaving the occupants to the mercy of the sea.
Vietnamese fishermen saved the Filipino fishermen, while in the second incident where a Vietnamese boat was sunk, Chinese fishermen came to save the Vietnamese.
At the end of the discussion, Poling asked the participants for their prognosis for the next 10 years in the contested waters. Most of them, he said, “agree far more than we disagree.”
Polin said the “points of agreement” converged on “[the need for] multilateral efforts, whether or not it is all of Asean or a subset of Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations].”
Everyone agreed, he said, “that the region is at an inflection point, all of the claimants and the international community, including the US, are losing in the SCS but it is not lost.”
The US has continued to conduct its United States Freedom of Navigation Operations (Fonops), asserting the right of all nations to sail through international waters notwithstanding China’s projections of ownership.
Poling cited a ranking Philippine Air Force official’s view on “the need for all Asean to get together because otherwise, there’s no way any single claimant is going to be heard, given the disparity in power of China.”
Poling then asked each participant how they would see the South China Sea 10 years down the road.
Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director, University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said 10 years from now, “if it is business as usual mode, [and] China will be allowed to get away with its assertion,” then the region will see “China’s control increasing, both in active and passive ways.”
He said China would be actively sending out its “assets’ to regulate activities in the SCS, in the way they wanted to be regulated.”
Batongbacal said the surrounding countries, “probably out of fear, will maintain good relations with China [and] adjust their behavior, activities to comply with the requirements and demands of China.”
If that happens, he sees Southeast Asian nations “being pushed of elbowed out of the way in the SCS.”
“If the region basically surrenders to China’s expansion, and assertions, then there’s not much the international community can do to help them,” Batongbacal said.
On the other hand, if there’s a change within Asean and they are able to unify, “then there is hope that we would see China adjust to international law through rules of fair play and see the region as an important stakeholder.”
Dr. Nguyen Hung Son, director general and head, Institute for the South China Sea, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said: “If China is allowed to dictate what goes on in the SCS, then they will dictate the business handling in relation to the rest of the world, with North America, the European Union and the international community.”
Son added: “I’m sure no one is going to stand idle, accepting that international law or international order is twisted unilaterally, serving one country’s interests with disregard [of] the interests of the immediate neighborhood and the broader international community.”
Sumathy Permal, fellow and head of Center for Straits of Malacca Maritime Institute of Malaysia, shared this outlook of the decade: “China will have a tighter grip on their 9-dash line, [and] I’m not sure how one claimant could respond to [such] assertiveness.”
She said China will attempt to control the Asean platform, “but bilaterally there will be a lot of engagements and also perhaps there will be formation of multilateralism.”