Current situation in the South China Sea and outlook for 2021
The current situation in the South China Sea can be described as a lull after the storm. The United States has slowed down its military operations against a backdrop of a contentious presidential election and transitional period afterward and the unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy in the future.
Countries with maritime claims are less reckless about infringing China’s rights and triggering backlash, as they are uncertain about the incoming U.S. administration’s South China Sea policy and the interaction between the U.S. and China — whether it will be confrontational or peaceful in the future.
After a turbulent 2020, the situation in the South China Sea in 2021 will be characterized by the following features: First, competition in the legal and rule-making fields will take over military confrontation as the new trend. For the United States, the administration of the new president, Joseph R. Biden, will continue to deny China’s rights to the South China Sea on the basis of the 2016 arbitral award.
For other maritime claimants, the window is narrowing for code of conduct consultations as they seek to maximize their claims in the South China Sea and try to have their interests confirmed and consolidated.
Second, countries outside the region will substantially increase their military presence and operations in the South China Sea. In addition to Japan and Australia, the United Kingdom and France will join U.S. military operations there. They may jointly conduct military operations, such as joint patrols or joint “freedom of navigation operations.”
Third, compared with 2020, claimants will notably increase their unilateral actions to consolidate their vested interests. Vietnam, for example, will increase its disputed fishing in the waters of China’s Xisha Islands and its oil and gas explorations in the waters of the Nansha Islands. The Philippines, based on the arbitral ruling, will mainly attempt to solidify its claims through domestic legislation, law enforcement, military activities and delays in joint development. Malaysia will become more active and assertive in pushing for deliberations by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as applied to the development of oil and gas resources in the Nankang Ansha and in exerting control over Qiaongtai Jiao.
Fourth, the COC consultations will run into unexpected difficulties. The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia surely want the window to be extended before the conclusion of COC negotiations; China and some ASEAN countries have differences on some core clauses; some extra-regional countries may disrupt the consultation process; and the arbitral award and the CLCS submission will both have negative effects. All this will make it difficult for stakeholders to reach consensus on the COC.
Fifth, incidents on the sea will be triggered by more intense military and paramilitary activity in the South China Sea. This will raise the urgency and necessity to develop a crisis management mechanism covering countries inside and outside the region, as well as both kinds of military activity.
Adjustment and impact of the U.S. South China Sea policy under the Biden administration
In the early days of the Biden administration, no major adjustments are expected in the U.S. South China Sea policy. China and the United States will continue their current confrontational dance, but with the establishment of dialogue and communication mechanisms between the two governments, a relationship of “coopetition” will emerge. This will feature dialogues focused on crisis management, confrontation (especially legal struggles) and competition for maritime power with the aim of military expansion.
As for its relations with other littoral states in the South China Sea, the United States will push its South China Sea security strategy again under its framework for Asia-Pacific security. At the same time, it will step up its military alliance with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. This to some extent will change China’s relatively favorable strategic posture after its construction islands and reefs in the South China Sea and its military deployments there.
The Biden administration will pressure the Philippines to choose sides between China and the United States by leveraging the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and again emphasizing the arbitral award. Vietnam will go further on issues such as the U.S. use of its military bases and Vietnamese-U.S. security cooperation, oil and gas development in disputed areas and the threat to lodge its own arbitration case against China. The United States will continue its high-pressure policy toward China.
With covert U.S. support, Malaysia will push for the deliberations by the continental shelf commission on its submission and press to speed up oil and gas development in the Nankang Ansha.
Regarding the COC consultations the United States, based on its strategic needs after its return to multilateralism, will set up new barriers to this China-let rules-making process for the South China Sea or create troubles via its proxies in ASEAN to bring the process to a standstill.