Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to end a trying year with a military flex, commissioning with fanfare the nation’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier for deployment in the South China Sea.
The celebratory event marked China’s entry into an exclusive club of global powers with more than just operational carriers and further boosted what is now widely recognized as the world’s largest naval fleet.
But as China projects ever more power in the hotly contested and strategic sea, 2020 is shaping into the year the rising power faces unprecedented pushback from rival Southeast Asian claimants, with more arms and backing from the United States.
How China responds to that countervailing push – soft or hard – will mark the difference between stability and conflict in the maritime region in 2020 and beyond, analysts and observers say.
Despite the major strides made under Xi’s ambitious military modernization program, China enters the new year after a geopolitically grueling 2019.
While the US has adopted broadly a new bipartisan consensus against China, rival sea claimants including Vietnam and Malaysia are now openly challenging Beijing’s wide-ranging claims to the South China Sea, including through appeals to international law.
In a bold move, Malaysia recently upped the legal ante to its competing sea claims with China.
On December 12, Malaysia formally submitted its extended continental shelf claims beyond its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to the United Nations’ Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea.
It cited another joint submission made with Vietnam in 2009 to claim a portion of the two states’ continental shelf in the southern part of the South China Sea.
That still-pending claim runs counter to China’s nine-dash line map, which makes supposed historical claims to encompass over 85% of the South China Sea’s basin.
Malaysia’s new submission caught China off-guard judging by its peeved response that it had “seriously infringed on China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea”
“China has historic rights in the South China Sea,” Beijing’s protest note, submitted by the Chinese mission at the UN, said.
Beijing responded similarly to an arbitral tribunal ruling in July 2016 that found in favor of the Philippines’ sea claims to the detriment of China’s nine-dash map. China has refused to abide by the judgment, which lacked an enforcement mechanism.
But Malaysia’s move, despite soft-pedaling of its claims vis-à-vis China in recent years, should not have come as a surprise.
For the past year, the Southeast Asian nation has taken up the cudgels against China’s so-called “debt trap” diplomacy, characterized by massive infrastructure investments across the developing world via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who pulled off a shocking electoral victory in 2018 in part by tapping into rising anti-China sentiment, has openly warned of “new colonialism” under China and called for wholesale renegotiation of Chinese infrastructure investments in the country.
“[W]hen you borrow money which we cannot repay, you are endangering your own freedom,” Mahathir told this writer earlier this year, highlighting the perils of large-scale Chinese investments in smaller nations.
“[If] we borrow huge sums of money, if you cannot pay money, you’ll become under the influence or the direction of the lender…If you cannot pay your debt, you find yourself subservient to the lender [China],” the Malaysian leader added.
Under a growing chorus of criticism, China has promised a new approach to its US$1 trillion BRI by emphasizing new environmental and “debt sustainability” standards while agreeing to slash billions from projected costs of big ticket projects in Malaysia and Myanmar, among others.
Shortly thereafter, however, Xi grappled with his gravest domestic security concern yet, as months-long and increasingly violent anti-Beijing protests gripped the prosperous administrative region of Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, pro-independence forces in neighboring Taiwan, which China considers as a renegade province that must be refolded into the mainland, have seized on the Hong Kong protests to undermine pro-Beijing elements ahead of presidential elections in January 2020.
“The Hong Kong protests have inspired us to resist China’s influence, and [they] show the importance of [national] freedom and autonomy,” the anti-Beijing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen told this writer during an interview earlier this year, ahead of her likely successful re-election bid.
While those anti-China threats rise, Xi’s bigger worry is arguably the festering disputes in adjacent waters amid an increasingly aggressive pushback by the US.
Amid an embittered trade war, the Donald Trump administration has upped the ante in the contested waters, granting greater policy autonomy to the Pentagon to challenge frontally China’s expansive claims and militarization of features it controls.
Over the past two years, the US Navy has regularized increasingly audacious Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) that target China’s claims, including double-warship deployment deep within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied islands.
More recently, Washington has expanded the geographic breadth of its FONOPs, covering the Philippine-claimed, China-occupied Scarborough Shoal, a feature China needs to establish an aerial defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the region.
The US has also made clear that it will come to the rescue of its Southeast Asian treaty ally if Filipino vessels, personnel or aircraft come under Chinese attack, including from fishermen-cum-militia forces.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has warned of a “more muscular” response to China’s so-called “gray zone” operations, vowing in future to apply military rules of engagement to Chinese paramilitary forces.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the US Coast Guard (USCG) has extended its operations to the sea area, participating in the US Navy’s FONOPs operations, participated in joint exercises with regional partners and expeditionary deployments in the Western Pacific and Taiwan Straits, and helped to boost the maritime security capabilities of regional partners, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
Encouraged by America’s concerted pushback and expanded maritime defense aid, Vietnam has formed an implicit alliance with Washington, including diplomatic coordination in multilateral fora against China’s perceived expansionism in the South China Sea.
Last month, before Malaysia’s UN submission, Hanoi raised the stakes by threatening international arbitration against Beijing following a months-long naval standoff over the sea’s energy-rich Vanguard Bank.
With Vietnam assuming the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chairmanship in 2020, Hanoi is expected to step up its criticism and attempt to build a bloc consensus against China’s militarized threats in the sea.
And as the Trump administration heads into a contentious election year, the embattled leader could have even more reason to take a tougher line on China in the South China Sea and beyond, in a bid to project strength and resolve to American voters.