Australian scholar says fear of South China Sea conflict is exaggerated

General

Increased military exercises and sharp rhetoric have fueled fears of a superpower conflict in the disputed South China Sea, but at least one scholar is making waves with a different narrative -- that the fears of war are overblown.

John Quiggin, professor of economics at the University of Queensland, Australia, argues that an inflated evaluation of the strategic importance of the disputed waterway may be stoking tensions. He says that those tensions are impeding diplomacy and collaboration on more critical international concerns like climate change.

He made his case in a recent article published by the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Australia, highlighting what he described as “five myths about the South China Sea.”

The “myths” are: The South China Sea is a vital shipping route, potentially threatened by China; the South China Sea is home to immensely valuable resources; China has the military and naval capacity to invade Taiwan; it is crucially important to maintain freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea; and China is willing to fight a nuclear war to defend its claims in the South China Sea.

Speaking to RFA from Brisbane, Quiggin said that globally the most prevalent myth about the South China Sea is that “it is a vital shipping lane and China might, in some ways, disrupt it.”

“The whole idea of South China Sea as a vital shipping lane is economically nonsensical,” he said, adding: “It’s certainly convenient to have the fastest and cheapest route but there’s always a long way around.”

It’s commonly believed that up to a third of the world trade is shipped through the South China Sea each year, worth between $3 trillion and $5 trillion. The Straits of Malacca are the shortest and cheapest route between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

But there are other alternatives and the economic cost of disruption would just be “a small amount,” said Quiggin, drawing a parallel with the Suez Canal’s closure in mid-20th century due to Arab-Israeli wars.

Similarly, the professor played down the importance of the oil and gas reserves in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, saying the quantities are “smaller than they seem.”

In his opinion, it is unlikely that substantial volumes of oil and gas will ever be extracted as we approach the end of the carbon fuels era and “these resources are of more value as diplomatic bargaining chips” rather than commodities.

The article provoked interest, but also disagreement, among South China Sea experts and researchers.

They included Greg Poling, a maritime expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington D.C. He disagreed with the premise that the most likely casus belli, or act that provokes war, between the United States and China would be an attempt by China to take control of shipping routes and disputed territory in the South China Sea.

“The shipping importance and resource disputes are indeed overstated, but neither are the fundamental concern,” Poling told RFA in an e-mail.

“The most likely casus belli is a use of force by China against either U.S. or allied vessels/personnel during operations by the latter to exercise their rights,” he added.

Western nations, including the U.S., have stepped up military drills in the South China Sea in the past year. Those nations have become more critical of China’s sweeping sovereignty claims amid concerns that Beijing’s stance poses a threat to freedom of navigation.

‘Myth about Taiwan’

Quiggin further dismissed fears about what is widely viewed as the most serious flashpoint for conflict in the region – Taiwan.

He called the claim that Beijing plans to invade Taiwan soon a “laughable idea” and “a seaborne invasion of Taiwan would be massively more difficult than the D-Day landings” as China simply doesn’t have enough capacity including landing craft. D-Day refers to the Allied seaborne landings in Normandy, France, in World War II.

Quiggin said “while everyone who seriously looks into the prospect recognizes it, no-one wants to admit it.”

“Taiwan doesn’t want to say that ‘we’re safe, we don’t need any help’. China certainly is not going admit that they can’t invade Taiwan. So it suits everybody to go home with this myth,” Quiggin said.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and vows to unite it with the mainland, by force if necessary. Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait has intensified in recent months, with hundreds of military aircraft sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in what observers see as an intimidation campaign.

The Australian scholar was also critical of what he called “the U.S. doctrine of Freedom of Navigation Operations” for naval ships in the South China Sea, saying it was more symbolic than substantive.”

“It’s again the U.S. unwilling to concede a point which is essentially symbolic, because when you look at the balance of forces, it will be very difficult to sustain the freedom of navigation if China really decided to take military action against it,” he said.

“There are serious sources of conflict between China and the democratic world in important areas like climate change, where co-operation is urgently needed. Focusing on secondary and symbolic issues like disputes over South China Sea reduces the prospect for resolving more important conflicts,” Quiggin concluded.