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China’s Missing Officials May Spell Disaster for the South China Sea

When one high-profile official vanishes, it’s concerning. But when three disappear, it feels like a systematic cleansing.

But what’s the endgame here?

China analysts are on edge grappling with this question as China’s defense minister, Li Shiangfu, remains AWOL, joining the ranks of Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, and General Li Yuchao, the head of China’s nuclear missile forces.

Shiangfu’s disappearance adds a layer of volatility to China’s military and foreign policy landscape, especially given his close ties to Xi Jinping and his control over one of the world’s most formidable military machines.

It seems the risk of the United States getting pulled into a battle in the South Pacific, where China’s been flexing muscles and beefing up its military presence, is increasing each day. The disappearance of these senior officials throws a spanner into the delicate gears of diplomacy, and it could be a sign that Xi is preparing for a confrontation.

While the official word is the latest disappearance was due to an extramarital affair, many believe the root cause is corruption. Allegations of fraud and corruption often serve as convenient pretexts for authoritarian regimes to dismantle the opposition, as we’ve seen with Russia’s crackdown on civil society and opposition figures, such as Alexey Navalny. And let’s not kid ourselves; corruption is a real headache for China, especially in its military ranks.

We’ve seen what happens in Ukraine when a corrupt and depleted military takes to the battlefield. So, if China’s gearing up for war, cleaning house and rooting out corruption becomes mission critical. But it’s not only the cleanse which is raising concerns.

In recent weeks, China’s been poking diplomatic beehives with its neighbors and thumbing its nose at international summits. On the military front, China’s power surge has many worried they might soon overtake the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power. For example, China’s navy is expected to grow by a jaw-dropping 40 percent by 2040, and they’re buying up weapons five times faster than the U.S.

In 2022, Xi made it clear that China should be battle-ready and capable of “fighting and winning wars” by 2049. But many of China’s neighbors are thinking that Beijing could meet its goals far sooner.

The South China Sea is where this anxiety is most palpable. China’s long been playing the bully, harassing ships and setting up military bases on disputed islands, all in the name of their fantastical “nine-dash line” claim over this vital shipping route.

Additionally, according to a former NATO analyst, literally lurking beneath the surface is a clandestine struggle between China and American tech giants competing for supremacy over internet cables within the South China Sea.

Knowing that China cannot yet challenge the United States on its home turf, this geopolitical hot zone could be where the CCP decides to launch its military campaign. Already, China has been fracturing ASEAN’s unity, a critical step in igniting a full-on conflict.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations can’t agree on how to mediate its own internal critical disputes. A critical example is the situation in Myanmar where the governing junta is brutally oppressing its people. Thailand, encouraged by China, has embraced the ruling junta, while other nations look to build relations with the democratic opposition in exile.

And then there are ASEAN powerhouses Malaysia and the Philippines, which have been embroiled in a contentious international arbitration case rooted in a decades-old territorial dispute. Although the case was eventually dismissed, the long-defunct Sultanate of Sulu was originally granted a staggering $15 billion from Malaysia’s oil and gas reserves.

It is precisely this susceptibility to division that underscores the paramount importance for ASEAN nations to strengthen economic and diplomatic bonds that counter China’s unpredictability and foster regional collective security. After all, constructive diplomatic relations rely on strong understandings between stakeholders, and a degree of being able to “read between the lines.”

To counter these threats from within and without, President Biden has been building stronger ties with nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. That is a good start, but it’s not enough. A new security framework urgently needs to be implemented.

An Asian NATO might not be in the cards just yet, but ramping up military cooperation through joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and weapons deals could offer ASEAN a more reliable partner and tip the balance away from China.

Ultimately, China’s increasingly aggressive and unpredictable diplomatic and military moves should ring alarm bells for all of us. We need only consider the devastating Ukraine conflict to remember the stark lesson of complacency in the face of aggression.

Saman Rizwan is UK-based analyst on South Asian affairs. She has a masters in International Relations from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore. As a journalist and commentator she writes frequently international politics, technology, human rights and gender-based violence.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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