The South China Sea became increasingly important in 2009 when Vietnam sought to claim parts of the islands it occupied in the 1970s. The result was push-back from China in the form of reclaiming the waters in the 1980s. In 1988, China sank three Vietnamese ships. Since 2013, China has built up 3200 acres of new land in the territory, and began increasing the strength of its submarine capabilities with new technology. These actions are a clear form of posturing to defend state interests. It is important to know that $5.3 trillion in trade of global goods were transported through the South China Sea pre COVID-19.
Japan has two primary reasons to be concerned; that China will gain control of the sea lines of communication, and claim rights of overflight passage. Australia’s concerns surround the fact that half of its coal, iron ore and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports are shipped through the South China Sea. India’s concern is the eroding trust of the region as a whole at a time when India’s interests were growing in the Indo-Pacific region as a result of the ASEAN treaty.
The US is concerned about overall maritime sustainability. The USS John S McCain has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operation Patrols in the region since 2015. The right of innocent passage and unimpeded free trade must continue. China has no right to challenge passage or disrupt commerce to satisfy state interests. The day that a U.S. ship is stopped by China is the day an unfortunate war will begin. All countries are concerned about the militarization of the sea and the disrespect of territorial integrity. China's disregard of the international law of the seas set forth by the United Nations (UNCLOS) has The Quad’s attention.
China’s aggression also gained the attention of international relations experts in 2018 at the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments in Washington, DC. The center held a focus group consisting of a wide variety of PhD academics interested in security. Questions were about the kinds of military equipment that should be included in the U.S. Government budget for the next five years based on knowledge of global political issues. The group was privileged to information about new technologies of air, ground, and maritime defense, and asked to provide their best approach to a global allocation of defense weaponry. The results pointed to beefing up defenses in the South China Sea with agile submarines and air-carrier battleships.
China is the country that comes up in every conversation about foreign policy. From copyright issues to monopolies in the production of cheap products and the devaluation of the YUAN, nearby countries are looking for protection. If China takes control of the South China Sea, The Quad will have to act. On March 11, 2021, President Biden held a Quad virtual summit to discuss regional security and the coordination of maritime efforts to maintain the stability of the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region. An in-person summit is in the works before the end of 2021. The talks are likely to lead to coordinated efforts to combat China’s aggression in the region.
The Quad is not a formal alliance. The group was formed under the George W. Bush administration and kicked into a higher gear in 2016 when three mid-ocean airfields were build by the Chinese. As the Quad strengthens its relationship, China pushes back by strengthening its ties to Russia. Sino-Russian maritime exercises began in 2003 in the form of Joint Sea, Peace Missions, and Border Defense Cooperation. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PlA) have participated in Russias military exercises including Kavkaz 2020 and Tsentr 2019, and Vostok 2018. China is building Russia’s 4G infrastructure and their trade is at an all time high. Morover, a joint lunar space station is being planned for Chinese and Russian space programs. Considering other potential allies, Sino-Russian ties to Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar would form a Quintet of unpredictability.
If the Korean peninsula and Turkey are like “campaign swing states” to China and Russia, the U.S. is in danger of loosing them. When Trump turned his back on the Kurds, Turkey became the official bachelorette for Russia and China to court. There are “African swing states” to worry about as well. Furthermore, Afghanistan can join the rank of “swing states”, since the U.S. is pulling out by September 11, 2021. The twenty years of planting U.S. seeds of democracy does not preclude Afghanistan from being used as a pawn and proxy of Russia/China against Iran, Israel, and the U.S.
Will the U.S. be willing to defend freedom of the seas in a long-distant defense operation in the South China Sea (a la Vietnam War)? With pandemic recovery underway globally, no country wants to divert funds to such a defense. However, China sits in an economically advanced position since it profited off the production of PPE globally.
Counteraction within The Quad include the sale of weapons to the four countries from the U.S. India received $3.4 billion in weapons in 2020 under the Trump administration. In 2019, Japan received $4.2 billion in arms pause an additional $2.2 billion in 2020. In January 2021, Australia confirmed it will spend $770 million on naval weapons. To every action there is a counteraction, and further provocation. Posturing leads to more posturing and eventually equates to a security dilemma. In this new frontier where economies are trying to recover from the pandemic, The Quad’s best chances may be de-escalation.