South China Sea: challenges and future prospects from the Chinese perspective

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Yan Yan
Yan Yan

Director of the Research Center of Oceans Law and Policy, National Institute for the South China Sea Studies (NISCSS)

The South China Sea (SCS) has been an area of concern for the international community due to its strategic and geopolitical importance. Perhaps no other single issue has generated such a degree of regional tension and reignited great power rivalry as this sought-after sea has.

In recent years, the biggest challenge in the SCS has been managing China-American military and paramilitary competition to avoid exacerbating the security environment. Under the Trump administration, US military involvement in the area has largely increased. Washington has expanded the scale of military exercises with allies in Southeast Asia, increased the frequency and intensity of its ‘freedom of navigation operations’ (FONOPs), deployed larger amounts of advanced weapons, and strengthened military ties with regional states.

The US has also dispatched Coast Guard vessels to conduct operations in this theatre. In response, China has deployed defensive equipment and weapons systems on the features to prevent potential maritime conflict and to protect its vulnerable national interests in the region.

However, neither of these measures has managed to thwart the US from conducting more confrontational actions targeting China nor do they give China the ability to match all aspects of the US military presence in the SCS. The regional security environment will remain tenuous as geopolitical competition between the two continues.

Looking ahead, settlement of territorial and maritime boundaries disputes will be profoundly complicated by historical, geographical and political considerations

Another challenge is that the claimant states have strengthened their control and jurisdiction over disputed features and waters within the SCS. Tensions have heightened as parties to the upcoming Code of Conduct (COC) have mobilised to consolidate claims and de facto control over areas such as the Spratlys.

For example, while China’s reclamation work ended in June 2015, Vietnam has continued its efforts on ten of its major occupied features. Their projects range from building a sports field to constructing dual-purpose facilities such as extended runways and communications equipment.

While Vietnam has been doing this since the 1970s, it receives very little international criticism compared to China. The Philippines has also extended their runway on Thitu Island. Malaysia started new offshore projects and continue to benefit from oil and gas exploration projects. These unilateral activities could easily aggravate the situation in the region.

Looking ahead, settlement of territorial and maritime boundaries disputes will be profoundly complicated by historical, geographical and political considerations. Despite tensions among claimants and extra-regional powers, there are still stabilising factors and areas of improvement that could prevent further escalation.

Maritime cooperation is critical to China and ASEAN’s shared interests, including preserving peace in the region

First, new bilateral dialogue and cooperation mechanisms could be established to help prevent future crises and pave the way for dispute resolution. In 2016, China and the Philippines established a bilateral consultation mechanism on the SCS. It has already held four meetings in which the parties discussed navigational issues, maritime cooperation projects, self-restraint and dispute settlement. China has also established a similar mechanism with Malaysia. Direct dialogue between disputed states is critical to managing the risk and building political trust.

Second, the aforementioned COC will help create a rules-based order in the South China Sea region. Due to its importance in building international understanding, its negotiation has been fast tracked and is gaining new momentum. The framework draft was adopted on August 2017, and the single draft negotiating text came out 12 months later.

Last November, at the East Asia Summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang expressed the desire to complete the COC consultation by 2021. This past August, the first reading of the Initial Single Negotiation Draft was completed ahead of time. This progress reflects China’s strong will of establishing regional rules and principles restraining states’ behaviour essential to building trust. All parties engaged in the negotiation process are striving for a new effective crisis management regime acceptable to all.

Third, maritime cooperation is critical to China and ASEAN’s shared interests, including preserving peace in the region. In April 2016, China and ASEAN member states pledged to implement achievements of ‘early harvest’, such as the ‘hotline platform’ connecting senior officials of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ASEAN countries in times of ‘maritime emergencies’. A similar China-ASEAN platform has also been created for maritime search and rescue operations.

In the long run, maintaining peace and stability requires collective efforts from regional powers, as well as all user states

During the ‘13th Senior Officials Meeting’ in August 2016, all parties reviewed and approved formal guidelines for these hotlines and a joint statement on the “Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea”. In terms of hard security, China and ASEAN have already conducted two joint military drills in 2018 and 2019.

Finally, China and the US could enrich existing maritime confidence-building and crisis prevention mechanisms to avoid miscalculation and accidental collision. Navigation is never a problem in these waters. Neither China nor other bordering states will ever try to, or has the capability to, block the SCS intentionally. The region carries an estimated one-third of global shipping; more than 60% of China’s maritime trade-in value travels through this significant shipping route.

Navigational freedom is also deemed to be of critical national interest for China. The ‘might makes right’ operations or other intensified forward naval presence actions naturally make China nervous. The operations could potentially result in close calls, or even fatal encounters. For conflict prevention, the two powers have already agreed to the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) of Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air-to-air Encounters of Military Aircraft and the MOU of Notification of Major Military Activities, and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA).

Though not legally binding, these agreements bear political significance and allow for safe encounters both at sea and in the air. Beijing and Washington could continue to work on more detailed rules of encounter or new annexes regulating other military activities, such as the use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

In the long run, maintaining peace and stability requires collective efforts from regional powers, as well as all user states. Finalising the COC will benefit all and help establish a rules-based order in the region. For China and ASEAN member states, deepening maritime cooperation will not only help built trust but also tackle common maritime threats. It will take considerable time and diplomatic effort, but it is worth it. By supporting key agreements like the COC, extra-regional actors, such as the EU, have a real opportunity to help build a lasting and profitable peace in the South China Sea.

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