To calm neighbouring claimants, China has conducted dialogue and consultations with them since the 1990s. One result was the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which calls for peaceful solutions through dialogue. But China has been reluctant about concluding a binding code of conduct. In response to China’s recent assertiveness, Vietnam and the Philippines have conducted live-fire exercises in disputed waters, and strengthened ties with the United States, with a US presence seen by both as the most visible deterrent.
The United States, for its part, has made clear its opposition to China’s assertiveness at various regional forums by emphasizing its interest in freedom of navigation. The United States recently announced the deployment of littoral combat ships in Singapore in the hope that their presence would have an additional deterrent effect on China’s assertiveness – just as Great Britain deployed HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse at the ‘Gibraltar of the East’ to deter Imperial Japan. On the other hand, since China’s excessive claims have led to incidents such as that in 2001 with the EP-3 spyplane and 2009's USS Impeccable incident, the United States is seeking an incidents at sea agreement with China. China, though, isn’t interested in any such thing as an agreement would justify a continued US presence in the South China Sea.
India is another important player in the South China Sea. Delhi is expected soon to introduce its first ballistic missile submarine, Arihant, and plans to build two more ballistic missile subs with the development of longer-range K-4 SLBMs. But until India successfully develops longer-range SLBMs, Indian submarines will need to operate in the South China Sea to target Beijing.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Australia is also concerned about high tensions in the region. Stability in Southeast Asia on Australia’s ‘Northern approaches’ is seen by policymakers there as particularly important as a hostile nation can project power out to Australia or threaten its seaborne trade and energy supply routes. As a result, it’s expected that Australia will boost its military presence in the state’s north while allowing greater access to its bases by the US military.
Japan, meanwhile, has its own strategic interests in the South China Sea, which is a critical sea lane through which 90 percent of its imported oil passes. The power balance in the South China Sea also has an enormous impact on security in Japan’s surrounding waters, namely the East China Sea and Philippine Sea. In addition, if China successfully obtains a sea-based second-strike capability by dominating the South China Sea, that would undermine the credibility of the US extended deterrent.
Japan announced its new National Defence Programme Guidelines in December 2010, which call for enhanced ISR operations along the Ryukyu island chain and reinforcement of the submarine fleet. In the recent US-Japan 2+2 meeting, Tokyo and Washington included maintenance of maritime security and strengthened ties with ASEAN, Australia, and India in common strategic objectives.
All this means that China faces a dilemma in the ‘Chinese Okhotsk.’ The more it seeks dominance over the international waterway, the more it invites hostilities. To avoid further deterioration, China should modify its nine-dotted claims in accordance with the UNCLOS (and the US should accede to UNCLOS immediately). As long as China continues its assertive behaviour, its maritime neighbours will strengthen strategic cooperation with the United States, India, Australia and Japan to establish a regional anti-submarine warfare network.
But the onus isn’t just on China – other nations in the region should seek cooperation. Where possible, joint development in disputed waters should be pursued, and the growing threat of piracy in the South China Sea suggests another area for nations to work together. Meanwhile, countries in the region should continue their dialogue with China on maritime security at venues such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.
It won’t be easy, but thrashing out a code of conduct offers the best chance of avoiding armed conflict.
Tetsuo Kotani is Special Research Fellow at the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo