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Geopolitical Competition in the South China Sea

Apr 10 , 2017
  • Chen Xiangmiao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China National Institute for South China Sea Studies

When repercussions from the South China Sea Arbitration involving China and the Philippines are still being felt in 2017, the South China Sea issue is once again creating new waves. Just as people were starting to feel relieved that the situation in the sea was beginning to calm down, a US aircraft carrier was deployed to the region for the first time after President Trump took office, and Japan is now planning to dispatch the Izumo helicopter carrier to the area, disturbing the hard-won peace there. As many commentators have pointed out, the sea issue has already reached the point of geopolitical competition, and the current peace and stability there is fragile.

There are two different, indeed opposite, scenes facing the South China Sea. Since the second half of 2016, through the concerted efforts of China and the ASEAN countries concerned, a consensus has been reached on how to manage the regional situation, which has already achieved remarkable results. Because of this, the sea has returned to a state of peace, stability and cooperation. Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in Manila, China-Philippines relations have changed markedly, with tensions between the two countries over the sea issue gradually easing, and both parties actively seeking a return to cooperation and dialogue. On a multilateral level, China and the 10 countries of ASEAN have fully and effectively implemented a declaration on the conduct of parties in the sea and accelerated consultations on a code of conduct for the region, with a framework for the code of conduct expected to be reached by the middle of this year.

On the other hand, however, the US and some of its allies are pushing for a resumption of tensions in the region. Since Trump took office, the new US administration has used some surprising language in comments about the sea issue. From threatening to prevent China from accessing islands, to sending a US Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson to patrol the sea, every US move has injected negative energy into an otherwise peaceful situation. Meanwhile, Japan is gradually expanding its political, diplomatic and military presence in the region. On the 13th of March, it was reported that Japan plans to send the Self-Defense Forces’ largest warship, the Izumo, to the area in May. It will also stop in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries neighboring the sea.

Frankly speaking, the issue has changed. Following its fragmentation and evolution since 2012, its complexity has reached unparalleled levels that far surpass the initial controversy over sovereignty and territorial jurisdiction of the Spratly Islands (involving the six parties of China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan). In fact, it has become a power struggle among great nations scrambling for supremacy. Geopolitical competition over the South China Sea mainly involves external countries and organizations using political, diplomatic and military means to compete with each other for geopolitical comparative advantage out of selfish strategic considerations. There are currently at least three competing forces there, namely, the US, whose relative strength is clearly declining, Japan, which is trying to revive its naval power, and the emerging countries of China and India. In the context of China’s burgeoning national strength, in particular, the US, Japan and India mistakenly regard China’s rights and initiatives in the sea as a challenge and strategic threat to the maritime and regional order. Their misguided coping methods are what currently define the geopolitical contest in the sea area. In addition to these actors, ASEAN is an important participant in this geopolitical game for maintaining a peaceful and stable regional development environment and its long-term pursuit of a balanced strategy. 

The geopolitical competition is likely to continue in the future. Although Trump’s policy regarding the sea still lacks clarity, there are no signs of an impending strategic contraction. Trump, however, does not appear to view the sea issue as a foreign policy priority as the Obama administration did. Indeed, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month stated that the US is committed to “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect [and] win-win cooperation” in its dealings with China, which was a positive sign for improvements in China-US relations. But because of the increasing geopolitical prominence of the sea as a vital channel for the US to maintain its global strategic advantage, Trump still recognizes that to make America great again he must defend this strategic location.

Japan’s ambitions there have only been revealed since the US loosened its strategic reins, meaning Japan’s investment and presence in the area is set to increase.

As a result, a breakthrough on the issue is only likely to come from the major powers reaching a strategic compromise.

In addition to establishing a safety code for sea and air encounters and other maritime crisis-control mechanisms, China and the US must, as a matter of urgency, sit down and talk, on a strategic level, about each other’s long-term interests in the sea and establish a dialogue mechanism for each other’s related policies and actions. In particular, both countries should declare their strategic interests there. They should draw up a list of areas where their interests intersect and explore feasible areas of China-US cooperation in the area. At the same time, breaking the deadlock in the geopolitical competition also depends on whether Japan, India and other regional powers act prudently in their strategic responses.

For the countries of this region, peace and stability is their responsibility and mission, but is in their own interests. As such, how to deal with interference from the US, Japan and other powers from outside has become a common concern of countries within the region. In particular, China and ASEAN countries should focus on implementing a dual-track approach and formulating a code of conduct for the sea, as well as establish mechanisms for maritime situations and to build mutual trust.

The issue is at a crossroads of geopolitical competition. If China and the US can truly move toward a new type of big-power relationship characterized by non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, then there is hope for peace and stability in the South China Sea.

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