The South China Sea: Where to From Here?


A round of ASEAN-led security talks recently took place that were expected to deliver progress in mitigating the disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). However, these talks made little headway. During the China-ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting in Tianjin on 29 July, only formal promises were made to continue negotiating the implementation of the Declaration of Conduct (DoC) and formulation the Code of Conduct (CoC). At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting on 4 August, and the ASEAN Regional Forum in Kuala Lumpur on 6 August, the only change was the use of stronger language (“the erosion of trust”) to describe the outcome of China’s island construction activities over the past 18 months, followed by reiterations of “the effective implementation of the DoC in its entirety” and “expeditious establishment of an effective CoC.”

Major constraints hamper tangible progress in the South China Sea. China is adamant that any resolution to the disputes must be pursued bilaterally between itself and other claimant states, while refraining from involving third parties or international organisations. China has also flatly denied to participate in the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s arbitration cases against it and will refuse to recognise any ruling. Furthermore, China’s input in formulating the CoC, which began in 2013, will require extensive revision of clauses such as the ban on military exercises in the SCS, meaning its finalisation could take up to a decade. Meanwhile, progress in bilateral talks has been limited to pragmatic defence cooperation and formal complaints from Malaysia, who has been the most obliging to China’s diplomatic preferences. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was also signed with Vietnam in 2014 to improve communication links between respective defence ministers.

The overlapping claims have created a security dilemma that favours preemptive tactics and provides fertile ground for escalation. The halt of China’s reclamation activities in August provides a window to consider measures that could be taken to defuse tension, mitigate the security dilemma, and make gradual progress in settling the disputes.

To address mounting concerns surrounding China’s militarisation of the Spratlys, Bonnie Glaser, of Washington-based CSIS, suggests a more insistent approach that would see the US facilitate an agreement for all deployments in the SCS to remain strictly defensive rather than offensive in capability. She also suggests that “the US and like-minded countries” should conduct freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed reefs to assert that artificial islands are not real ‘islands’ under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and hence are not entitled to exclusive maritime zones.

The problem is that the invariable championing of US leadership in addressing the territorial disputes has never yielded Chinese cooperation or concession. Beijing has been quick to dismiss US invocations of UNCLOS since Washington has not ratified the convention. Beijing also rebukes Washington’s “selective silence” towards the reclamation activities of other states, including its allies. In a 2014 policy brief, the Brookings Institute sagely recommended that Washington ratify the UNCLOS, and call out the reclamation activities of other states, in addition to China, in order to avoid double standards. These steps would legitimate Washington’s policy and leadership position, particularly in addressing China’s treatment of the SCS as its exclusive maritime zone, which is the paramount issue in the short-term.

When formulating their next move, stakeholders must bear in mind that sand dredging as means of land reclamation is not new, nor is the militarisation of island facilities in the South China Sea. While China has built an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef that allows it to field military aircrafts, all other states that occupy the Spratlys also operate airstrips. These realities play to the advantage of China’s reasoning that, albeit on a much larger scale, it too has the right to reclaim and militarise.

Communicating intentions is the key to mitigating a security dilemma. Fortunately, progress has been most fruitful so far in the area of communication. In June, the US and China committed to implement their MOU of notifying one another about major military exercises, which represents a positive stride in clarifying defensive deployments. In Tianjin, members came away agreeing to establish a Foreign Minister’s Hotline aimed at defusing maritime emergencies in the SCS. The value of these communication channels, in their effectiveness, or as mere confidence-building measures, will be closely observed.

In a November 2014 Lowy Institute publication, Professor Rory Medcalf of ANU stressed the need to minimise risk in order to prevent “miscalculation or escalation,” which requires “avoiding the deliberate creation of incidents” through unilateral acts. Since sustained military presence in the SCS is now a permanent feature, Medcalf suggests pursuing transparency and trust through Asia’s security architecture (EAS, ARF, ADMM, etc.), and capitalising on opportunities for cooperation on nontraditional security issues such as disaster relief.

Perhaps most significantly, progress is hampered by what Medcalf describes as a lack of “mutual respect for the dignity and perceptions of other nations” that acknowledges the legitimacy of competing perspectives in the dispute. China’s strategy of unequivocally denying that there is any territory in dispute perpetuates a discourse that delegitimises competing viewpoints. China’s acknowledgement of the legitimacy of other claimant states’ concerns, such as its violations of exclusive economic zones, and the latters’ expressions of understanding for China’s compulsion to remedy historic injustices, would greatly improve chances of settling the disputes in future.

Sophie Qin is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

Image Credit: stratman² (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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