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Foreign Policy

On the Chessboard of the South China Sea

Aug 11 , 2014

Since the new Chinese leadership took office, the South China Sea has been turning into a chessboard of international politics. 

Tides in the South China Sea have been somewhere between tranquil and stormy since the end of World War II. Although a few small-scaled military conflicts did occur, the sea has been peaceful and stable on the whole. China-ASEAN relations registered major development in the first decade of the 21st century and the South China Sea was not stirred by disputes over it. The Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea signed in 2003 between the governments of ASEAN member states and China represented a historic progress made with self-restraint and joint commitments on both sides. In this connection, it is rather fair for Premier Li Keqiang to describe the last ten years as a “golden decade” for China-ASEAN relations. President Xi Jinping’s proposition to build a community of common destiny with ASEAN is also well grounded. The accumulation of positive energy in the past decade is a basis and fact that must not be ignored yet is often overlooked when the question of the South China Sea is discussed. 

Zhai Kun

Now that there are disputes that cannot possibly be resolved within a few generations, they will certainly create tides under certain conditions. In recent years, disputes over the South China Sea have developed from small issues and brewed during the 2008 global financial crisis to unprecedented width, depth and toughness. After the financial crisis, China’s gap with the US has narrowed and that with its neighbors has widened. The total economic aggregates of ten ASEAN countries are less than 40% of Chinese economic totals. International and domestic opinions tend to believe that time is on China’s side. In this situation, the short-lived liberal spirit of cooperation has ebbed and realist power politics calculations have again become dominant on the question of South China Sea. 

Between the financial crisis and the 18th CPC National Congress at the end of 2012, the conern of countries has increased without exception to their levels of alert, preparations, or competitions against China. At the same time, these countries have accepted and even welcomed China’s charm offensive, soft power policy, and peaceful development. Vietnam already accelerated its maritime strategy. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, who had long been friendly to China, was under huge pressure both at home and from the US. Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in July 2010 that the South China Sea is a “national interest” of the United States. This high-profile intervention directly clashed with China’s intensified efforts to safeguard its sovereignty. After that, the 2011 cable-cutting incidents between China and Vietnam, the 2012 Huangyan Island incident between China and the Philippines, and ASEAN’s failure to conclude a final communiqué at the 2012 Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, due to differences over the question of South China Sea, all caused uproars. During his last appearance at the China-ASEAN Summit, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao earnestly advised concerned countries to focus on development and proposed to strengthen maritime connectivity with financial support. However, it is increasingly difficult to effectively calm rough waves over the South China Sea with strengthened economic cooperation. Economy is economy and security is security. The two develop separately according to their own logic. Such is the new state of normal in the South China Sea. 

This feature has become more prominent after the 18th CPC National Congress. In October 2013, President Xi proposed in Indonesia the creation of a China-ASEAN community of common destiny and the building of a maritime silk road. In the same month, Premier Li visited Brunei and Vietnam to advance maritime cooperation. The two visits marked comprehensive upgrading and acceleration of China-ASEAN cooperation. Then the situation in the South China Sea has become more tense, dramatic and serious even though the two sides launched consultations and negotiations on a South China Sea code of conduct. In November, China announced an East China Sea air defense identification zone. Japanese media played up stories about China establishing such a zone over the South China Sea while Vietnam and the Philippines expressed their worries. In December, US Secretary of State Kerry pledged increased maritime security assistance to Vietnam and other ASEAN countries. 

In January 2014, new fishery rules for Hainan Province in China went into effect and military patrols in the South China Sea were also strengthened. The United States, Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of increasing tensions and threatening regional stability. March saw a standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at Ren’ai Reef. In the same month, the Philippines submitted a complete filing in its arbitration case concerning its claims in the South China Sea. There were various indications that the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam had increased cooperation against China. At the same time, the US showed a bias for comprehensive cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam. In April, President Obama visited Asia and exerted pressure on China with vows of support for Japan and the Philippines. 

In May, the operations of drilling platform CNOOC 981 in Xisha Islands waters, which belong to China, met a strong response from Vietnam. Chinese and Vietnamese ships confronted and rammed each other. Anti-China riots broke out in Vietnam, threatening the security of expatriates in that country, and the American government accused China of provocation. At the end of May, at the CICA Summit in Shanghai, President Xi stated, “security problems in Asia should eventually be solved by Asians themselves.”

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel played up the so-called “China Threat.” In July, China and the US had their 6th Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Presidents Xi and Obama had a telephone conversation, a US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State proposed three no’s in the South China Sea, and CNOOC 981 completed its operations ahead of schedule; allowing the situation in the South China Sea to somewhat relax. However, on July19th, the Philippine Foreign Minister again called on Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to create a united front against China, seemingly with an intention to create new disturbances. 

At this stage of the chess game, the situation seems to be clearer. The biggest change is that onlookers have become assistants to players. Another major change is that parties concerned have become more direct in their actions with frequent and escalating interactions. China is proactive, while Vietnam and the Philippines refuse to be outdone. The US and Japan explicitly become involved, meaning a big game of various strategic means including media opinions, military deterrence, coalitions, litigation, dialogue and consultations as well as foreign assistance has just begun. Currently, the possibility of conflict must not be excluded. But, on the whole, it remains controllable. 

Now, winds blow from all directions, pushing up waves in the South China Sea. This chessboard has become a focus of global geopolitical gaming in the post-financial crisis era, creating an unprecedented situation.

Zhai Kun is the director of the Institute of World Political Studies under China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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