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A Look at the South China Sea

Oct 09, 2020
  • Hu Bo

    Director, the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative

A new round of turbulence has emerged in the South China Sea since the second half of 2019. And against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, some claimants and countries outside the region have become more and more anxious, with increased military, diplomatic and economic moves, leading to greater tension. Major media are even talking about an upcoming war in the South China Sea between China and the United States. What are the factors influencing the situation in the South China Sea? What are the most likely future developments? A sober assessment is needed. 

Amid increasing risks of military competition, the probability of China and the U.S. proactively engaging in a war is still very low. 

Long-term observers almost all agree that China-U.S. conflict has become the biggest variable shaping developments in the South China Sea. Considerations over the strategic competition with China have in the past 10 years shifted the American position on disputes in the South China Sea from relative neutrality to taking sides and even direct intervention. Its policy focus has correspondingly evolved from managing and using disputes to fueling and encouraging frictions. Militarily, the U.S. has also stepped up strategic, tactical and operational preparations against China.

In the China-U.S. competition, China is the relatively passive party. Subjectively, it does not want a geopolitical competition with the U.S. in the surrounding region, including the South China Sea. “Geopolitical competition” has never been considered a good thing in Chinese policy and think-tank circles, and China has on the whole exercised restraint to avoid such a situation. But the problem is, even without a strategic intent to challenge the U.S., Chinese actions to safeguard its national interests and increase military assets in the South China Sea are seen by the U.S. as a threat to its maritime dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. China may try to restrain its own initiatives and actions. But as long as the country’s current rising momentum is maintained, its power and capabilities will continue growing, which will always be seen by the U.S. and other countries as a proof of the Chinese intention to challenge the U.S. and even control the entire South China Sea. Moreover, in the face of the growing U.S. military presence and activities in the South China Sea, China cannot afford to take it lightly and will inevitably take corresponding countermeasures.

Therefore, in the long run, the conflict between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea will inevitably intensify. The uncertainty now is whether this competition can be brought under control to a certain extent. Will there be a showdown in the form of a war? As both sides emphasize crisis management, the probability of either of them proactively engaging the other in a war seems low, but the risk of an accident or unexpected conflict is high. 

Disputes over islands and reefs are controllable but tensions over maritime delimitations may run high. 

Since the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, despite exchanges of accusations, there has been no “new occupation” of uninhabited islands or reefs. Thus the status quo with regard to controls over islands and reefs has basically been maintained. On the other hand, as countries move to put into practice the concepts of exclusive economic zones and continental shelves on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), disputes over maritime boundaries have been intensifying since 2009.

After the South China Sea arbitration award was issued on July 12, 2016, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia began to adjust policies and deny the existence of any delimitation disputes with China in the southern and central parts of the sea. The moves were somewhat secretive and veiled initially. Then the Malaysian proposal for the limits of its outer continental shelf on Dec. 12, 2019, spurred the relevant countries to make high-profile references to the arbitral award, causing a rare exchange of fire by way of diplomatic notes.

On Dec. 12, 2019, Malaysia submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf its application for the outer limits of the outer continental shelf extending 200 nautical miles northward from Sabah, the preparation of which was actually completed in 2017. The geographic scope of the application covers most of the sea areas of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Qundao) and overlaps with the Chinese dashed line and the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Nansha. It also bears on the status and ownership of some islands and reefs in the Spratly Islands, being regarded as part of Nansha or part of the Nansha continental shelf.

In response, on the same day, China sent a note to the UN secretary-general, reaffirming that “China has inherent sovereignty over the Nanhai Zhudao (the South China Sea islands), including the Dongsha Qundao, Xisha Qundao, Zhongsha Qundao and Nansha Qundao; the Nanhai Zhudao are entitled to internal waters, territorial waters and contiguous zones; the Nansha Qundao are entitled to an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf; and China has historical rights in the South China Sea.”

Subsequently, Vietnam, Indonesia, the U.S., Malaysia, the UK and Australia, as well as Britain, France and Germany, collectively sent notes to the UN arguing that the Chinese claim to historic rights is beyond the scope of UNCLOS and inconsistent with general international law as reflected in UNCLOS, opposing the Chinese assertion of maritime rights in the South China Sea by taking the islands as an archipelago.

In addition to the diplomatic front, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, emboldened by the arbitral award and extraterritorial states, have become more radical and aggressive in the disputed areas, frequently provoking fisheries conflicts and carrying out unilateral oil and gas exploration.

From the Chinese perspective, these disputes have a long history. China has refused to accept, participate in or recognize the arbitration or the award. Except for the above countries, most countries in the world do not accept the arbitration or arbitral award in this regard. If any country ignores the existence of a dispute and takes unilateral action to violate Chinese rights, China will have to prove with actions the existence of disputes.

In the future, disputes over maritime delimitation will continue to ferment, and the main friction points will be fisheries and oil and gas exploration activities. The prospect of mitigation seems rather slim for the time being. 

The competition over rules and order in the South China Sea is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. 

China, the U.S. and ASEAN are the three major forces shaping regional order in Southeast Asia. In the short term, it is difficult for the three parties to find the greatest common denominator or for any one of them to play a decisive role. China’s traditional influence has been mainly political and economic, with relatively weak security influence. The U.S. has a great influence on the security of ASEAN countries, while its political and economic influences are relatively weak. As ASEAN countries have rather different views on the South China Sea and other issues, the organization is torn apart inside and so it’s hard to take up a leadership role.

As a positive attempt to build an open regional order, the ongoing consultation between China and ASEAN countries on a code of conduct for the South China Sea (COC) is through the second reading. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have made it impossible to conclude the consultation within three years (by 2021). The negotiation is more complicated also because it is more difficult and complex to bargain over the substantive provisions bearing on the immediate interests of all parties.

The Chinese proposal to conclude the negotiations within three years reflects its own wish and determination. Whether that will be achieved will also depend on ASEAN countries. Some parties, such as Vietnam, hold rather radical positions and have put forward many unrealistic propositions. Their sincerity in the negotiation is quite questionable.

In addition, the attitude of some extra-regional powers has undergone a major change. Take the U.S. for example. It notably views the COC consultation and its success as a Chinese gain, which it does not want to see. As a result, its attitude toward the consultation has slipped from the original active support to passive wait-and-see and now to direct opposition. Through public statements and on multilateral and bilateral platforms, the U.S. has constantly rendered a picture of China controlling the consultation process and establishing an exclusive order, adding complexity to the consultations.

It is important to note that even if the COC consultation is successfully concluded, we must not expect too much from the result. China has repeatedly reiterated that “the COC is not a platform for resolving disputes in the South China Sea.” To some extent, the COC will help regulate the behavior of countries, promote mutual trust and manage differences, but it does have its own limitations.

In the face of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and Indo-Pacific maritime security initiative, most Southeast Asian countries have clearly expressed their reluctance to participate in any exclusive security mechanism. But they have not refused to rely on American resources to strengthen their own capacity-building. Military security cooperation with the U.S. has been deepening.

As the U.S. is committed to great-power competition in the region and pursues an exclusive maritime security order, the competition over the rules and order in the South China Sea will become increasingly fierce. The three-way interactions will lead to a protracted state of “sub-order” — i.e., the lack of a recognized or effective strong order. In the context of an overall peace race, all parties face restrictions in their actions and have an interest in strengthening crisis management and control, thus excluding anarchy. The situation in the South China Sea will continue to swing between the law of the jungle and the common homeland.

In short, for some time to come, great power competition, maritime delimitation frictions and gaming over an order will be intensified to varying degrees, making it even more difficult for negotiation or compromise. The competition and gaming will presumably remain peaceful and manageable on the whole, but uncertainties are growing. In addition, as a regional hot spot, the South China Sea will be a significant consumer of the military, law enforcement and diplomatic resources of the countries concerned.

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