The Strategist

A Breakdown of Order: Politico-Military Dynamics in the South China Sea

10 Mar, 2021    ·   5757

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar considers the implications of structural changes and questions of sovereignty in the SCS

Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Distinguished Fellow

Geopolitical trends are not ‘pop-up’ events. They represent an evolved aggregation of policies that manifest as direction in a state’s world view. The present politico-military dynamics in the South China Sea (SCS) are no different. They have been shaped by several global and regional disruptions over the past few decades. This commentary focuses on three important long-term trends in the SCS region.

· The disintegration of Cold War alliances and the consequent breakdown of leadership and balance of power that used to provide both context and substance to international relations
· Condition of state sovereignty in the face of altering flows of capital, people, and technology
· The diminishing prospects of ‘order’ as states adopt aggressive military postures and doctrines with a view to change geography and existent political norms.

Structural Changes      

The disintegration of Cold War alliances has led to a breakdown in the balance of power, which was earlier able to strengthen mutual forces such that no one state was able to absolutely dominate and prescribe laws to the rest. Since all were equally interested in this condition, it was held to be the common interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere—even by force of arms—when any of this settlement was infringed by any other member of the community. It was premised on two realities of the existent international system. First, the system was anarchic with no hegemon to dominate. Second, that states are principal actors in the international system, as they ‘set the terms of collaboration’ and devise balancing alliances. This theory with all its abstractions and many flaws lay at the heart of the system up to and beyond the Cold War.

The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty, which dominated the last three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as ‘penumbric competition’. These are conflicts where lack of definition masks the nature of engagement, which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination and the ability to tweak the ‘rule book’. China particularly has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence to further its aspirations are financial involvement, military coercion, and leveraging instabilities.

State Sovereignty

Globalisation of capital, labour, and technology has redefined the very concept of a sovereign state, besides a surge of migrations turning existing socio-economic conditions topsy-turvy. The economic benefits of this ‘new world’ are there for those willing to embrace the change. States that have retreated within are left in a world of denial that fails to recognise what has structurally redefined the modern successor to the overwhelmingly antiquated Westphalian system. But what of states such as China that have selectively endorsed and embraced attributes of the globalised world without the ‘messiness’ of socio-economic changes?

The principal motive force underlying globalisation is the progressive integration of economies and societies. Driven by new technologies, new economic and financial relationships, international policies, and the urge for wealth creation, globalisation provides the ultimate amalgamation that can potentially free societies from the constraints of autocratic control. These exchanges have led to interdependencies at all levels. It has also precipitated a conflict between markets and governments that tends to weaken and tear the very fabric that binds nations together.

But is this a condition that China’s authoritarian system can tolerate? And if it cannot, it runs the risk of unendurable stresses within its society that may eventually challenge the foundations of the regime itself.  

Diminishing Prospects of ‘Order’

It is not simply the rise of China’s comprehensive power that has given notice to status-quoists, but also its determination to re-write the ‘rule book’ on its terms as apparent from its claims in the SCS and its flouting of international norms. The loss of confidence that the US has been confronted with by the stalemate in Iraq, the Levant, and Afghanistan, and past inability to come to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 can hardly have helped to steel its geopolitical poise.

Even if China’s efforts to gain strategic dominance in the region does not achieve the desired results, clearly, their efforts are symptomatic of a defiance of the existing international order. Beijing’s vision of domination leans heavily on its grandiose ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and the financial clout of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) created in 2016 as a counter to the US-dominated World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The growing apprehension is that in the absence of a set of conditionalities, and a consensus that underwrites fiscal discipline, tax reform, deregulation of market dynamics and secure property rights, debt will be increasingly transformed into territorial lease or trade concessions—as the Chinese have done in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Pakistan or in Kenya. Meanwhile, in the SCS, claims defined by China’s ‘nine-dash line’ line were judicially debunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016. Yet, Beijing’s decision to unabashedly reject the verdict has raised the anxieties about what China’s rise really entails for the region.

An Improbable Prognosis

These three trends have seemingly opened the SCS to the arrival of a new hegemon. The apparent imbalance caused by the US’ receding influence and the absence of an alternative would appear to throw an invitation to China to fill the vacuum. Yet, there remains a body of distrust. If regional domination remains the aim, then what becomes of the slackening terms of sovereignty? There is discernible movement against such an autocratic regime, its imperial methods, and territorial ambitions—whether in Taiwan, Ladakh, the SCS, or elsewhere.

On the security front, the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) aims to balance China’s revisionist ambitions. The opportunity must be seized lest globalism be held to ransom by Chinese nationalism. While it has not announced itself as a military alliance, it will need to define purpose. The next step would be to enhance military cooperation to signal intent and deter future Chinese attempts to alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A charter and a fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.


Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar is Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, and former Commander of the Strategic Forces Command of India