Wolf warriors and the escalating tension at South China Sea

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, interviews Collin Koh, research fellow, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, on the prevalence of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy and its implications for the South China Sea dispute.

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, interviews Collin Koh, research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, on the prevalence of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy and its implications for the South China Sea dispute. Collin is an expert on maritime security and naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific, focusing on Southeast Asia.

Collin Koh, research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

As China gains in stature as a global powerhouse, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is increasingly flexing its muscles to pressure other claimants and engaging in aggressive and provocative actions in disputed waters, in a bid to solidify its claim of almost the whole South China Sea.  

At the same time, Chinese diplomats, the so-called “wolf warrior spokespersons”, are using confrontational language to attack any perceived slights.  And with the recent involvement of the United States in a pushback against the CCP’s claim, the South China Sea dispute can be said to be at a flashpoint and there are consequences for the Southeast Asian region.

Maritime Fairtrade (MFT): From the perspective of China, why is the South China Sea (SCS) important?

Collin Koh (CK): The SCS is important from the domestic, economic and strategic perspectives. Economically, SCS contributes to the livelihood of Chinese fishermen, despite the growing long-term threat of fish stocks depletion in the area due to overfishing. The hydrocarbon resources, and also “combustible ice” reserves in the SCS seabed are also deemed important for China’s long-term energy security needs given its consumption needs continue to outstrip production capacity, thereby compelling it to rely more on energy imports. 

Strategically, the SCS constitutes one of the “near seas” that are adjacent to the Chinese coast, which contributes to its active offshore defense strategy and further afield. The SCS includes the southern sea approaches to China, and forms also the southern flank of a future Taiwan military campaign. 

From the strategic military perspective, the SCS is also widely believed to be a “boomer bastion” for China’s ballistic missile submarines, especially given that Sanya in Hainan is home to the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy fleet for these strategic assets. 

Of course, domestically, the SCS has been regarded upon as “ancestral sea” or “blue territory”, which feeds into the long-held narrative of the CCP propounding the past century of humiliation of China and therefore, also a core interest to uphold – which thereby helps sustain the ruling party’s political legitimacy at home.

MFT: How do other claimants regard China’s Nine Dash Line argument to claim almost the whole of the South China Sea?

CK: The other claimants, while not all openly supporting or endorsing the award handed down in 2016 over the SCS, regard China’s excessive maritime claim as irredentist and contrary to UNCLOS. In recent times, there have been some more evident pushback to this effect – various ASEAN parties in the SCS have submitted note verbales in the UN rejecting Beijing’s claims.

MFT: With the recent rise of China’s wolf warrior diplomacy, coupled with its unilateral military and commercial activities in disputed waters, what are the implications for ASEAN as a whole?

CK: The use of coercive techniques in the SCS by Beijing, coupled with its deft use of economic and lately, vaccine enticements, present a greater sense of uncertainties regarding China’s long-term strategic intention. 

This would compel ASEAN countries to continue hedging against such uncertainties, including continuation of self-help policies (such as defense buildup) and engagement with extra-regional powers such as the US. 

For ASEAN as a bloc, member states are divided on the seriousness of the SCS disputes and harbor differing national interests with respect to this topic, and they are also economically dependent on China to varying extents – which significantly shape their stances on the SCS issue. 

Therefore, China’s approach has a divisive effect on the 10-member bloc, and hampers intramural cohesion on the SCS disputes. This poses a challenge to ASEAN’s centrality.

MFT: China refuses to accept the 2016 UNCLOS award, of which it is a State Party to UNCLOS.  What are the implications for the region’s maritime security?

CK: Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge and accept the 2016 award poses a challenge to rules-based order, in particular, UNCLOS. If China would disregard UNCLOS, there’s a possibility that Beijing could go further in undermining this convention, which it has in recent years misleadingly criticized as a “product of the West” and thereby seeking to upturn it to its favor. 

And Beijing’s action can have long-ranging implications on not only the region but the world at large – it could set forth a dangerous precedent on how UNCLOS and its conflict management and dispute settlement mechanisms are being interpreted and applied.

MFT: As China rejects international law and increasingly relies on military and economic might, will diplomacy play a diminished role and we see naval buildup within ASEAN countries?

CK: There’ll still be a foremost preference for diplomacy – the recent developments may have put a damper on expectations of such an exercise but still not diminish its utility. Ultimately, short of dispute settlement, diplomacy remains important for conflict management – the multitude of dialogue mechanisms in the region such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus, do contribute to confidence-building amongst the rival nations and help forestall, if not totally eliminate the possibility, of armed conflict. 

The ongoing negotiations on the proposed Code of Conduct is also an exercise of diplomacy, at least helping to ease tensions to a degree, even if one could rightly suspect the utility of this mechanism. 

At the same time, we won’t see abating buildup of military forces as a way of self-help, and of course engagement with extra-regional powers on the defense and security front. COVID-19 could definitely put a damper on defense plans as regional governments focus their limited resources to healthcare and economic recovery, at least for a time being.

MFT: The US is transitioning to a Biden administration soon.  What are the implications for the South China Sea dispute?

CK: We won’t likely expect any fundamental shift in the US policy towards the SCS as set forth by the Trump administration (especially, the policy pronouncements made in July by Pompeo), and given also that there’s bipartisan consensus in Washington on the long-term challenge posed by China to US national interests, including those in SCS. 

Though we might expect the Biden administration to be more consultative with US allies and partners in approaching the SCS issues. Generally, the Biden administration may try to balance between Obama-era and Trump-era policies on the SCS.

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