Wolf Warriors and the Escalating Tension at South China Sea (Part 3)

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.

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?

IDSS: 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?

IDSS: 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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Advocating for Ethics and Transparency in Maritime Asia through independent journalism