The last two months saw an uptick in tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) following a period of relative calm since the arbitral tribunal at the Hague handed down its historic and sweeping award on maritime entitlements in the SCS, overwhelmingly favoring Manila over Beijing. After a year of successfully diminishing the legal and diplomatic impact of the unfavorable ruling, China has resumed a pattern of brazen intimidation against its fellow SCS claimants.
In July, Beijing bullied Hanoi into suspending oil drilling in a disputed oil block 250 nautical miles off the southeast coast of Vietnam. China reportedly threatened that it would attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if the oil drilling did not cease immediately. A month later, Beijing sent a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats, escorted by People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) ships and Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to Thitu Island, the largest land feature claimed and occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands.
The purpose of the deployment remains unclear, but some have speculated that it may have been a coercive demonstration to dissuade Manila from carrying out announced infrastructure repairs and upgrades on Thitu; or a more provocative move of posturing (or threatening) to blockade or even land on one or more of the adjoining unoccupied sand bars. If the latter, however unlikely, it would suggest a similar modus operandi to the illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and a destabilizing escalation with strategic ramifications if one of those sand bars includes Sand Cay – an unoccupied high-water feature that could affect the sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction of nearby Chinese-claimed Subi Reef (one of China’s seven artificial islands in the SCS). As per United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Subi Reef cannot generate its own territorial sea, but it has the potential to supersede a territorial sea claim from Sandy Cay because the distance between them (unlike Thitu) is less than 12nm.
Also of consequence was the disappointing outcome of the 24th Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila 2-8 August. The joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting mostly favored China’s positions over those of the United States, Australia, and Japan. Beijing wanted no discussion or reference to its claims or activities in the SCS, last year’s arbitration ruling, and need for an ASEAN Code of Conduct (COC). Washington, meanwhile, advocated for the implementation of the 2016 arbitration decision and a substantive and legally binding COC. In the end, Chinese positions largely won out. The communique wording was far less forceful and China-specific than Vietnam and the United States and its allies preferred. Indeed, it was sufficiently ambiguous that Beijing and its supporters within ASEAN could tolerate and accept – another successful diplomatic obstruction on China’s part.
So, what does all of this mean for the region and the United States? Part one of this two-part series provides perspectives and context to the strategic question. Part two examines ways and means the United States could turn the tide and regain the strategic initiative, recover the high ground of regional influence, and stave off losing the SCS.
Pundits within U.S. and foreign think tanks were quick to analyze the recent developments and assess the strategic implications thereof. The assessments vary from diminished U.S. regional influence to loss of the SCS by the United States. The following are two exemplars of such judgments:
A scholar with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a Chinese think tank, wrote in the International Public Policy Review and later republished by The Diplomat that the recent ASEAN meetings capped an trend of eroding U.S. regional influence (soft diplomatic power) and that this decrease is both absolute and relative to that of China. The United States, the piece argued, is realizing that “its soft power relationships in Southeast Asia are shallower and more ephemeral than it thought.” Washington, therefore, needs to enhance its soft power commitments in the region if it hopes to keep pace with Beijing, or stem China’s growing influence.
A former journalist and noted author, now an associate fellow with the Chatham House, wrote in Foreign Policy that Vietnam’s capitulation shows China’s neighbors fear that the United States no longer has their backs. If Hanoi thought Washington had its back, Beijing could have been deterred and the credibility of the United States in the region strengthened. Instead, Washington has left the region drifting in the direction of Beijing.
One More Perspective
Although one can quibble on the scope, nature, and extent, America has indeed lost some influence over the years – especially with some allies, partners, and organizations in the region. The whys and wherefores vary, but largely revolve around the geostrategic contest between the United States and China for regional dominance with the SCS as a prominent manifestation of that strategic rivalry.
Washington has generally responded to Chinese assertiveness in the SCS with an ambiguous restraint policy, concurrently accommodating and balancing Beijing. The former reassures China and encourages a cooperative relationship to maintain the regional status quo and acceptance of the greater international system from which Beijing itself has greatly benefited. The latter seeks to dissuade China to not alter the regional order through an amalgamation of soft and hard deterrent powers.
In the beginning, the policy favored accommodation (cooperative), but has since migrated to a more balancing (competitive) posture because of Beijing’s increasingly strident behavior despite repeated U.S. overtures and deference to Chinese national interests. Moreover, the U.S. response to China’s call for a “new type of great-power relationship” has been mostly disjointed, uneven, and at times, confusing. There is still a distinct disconnect in how Beijing and Washington perceive and understand the model. What the United States views as a way to manage competition (weaken instability) and promote cooperation (strengthen stability), China sees it as a framework to acknowledge its new global status and respect its core strategic interests – one of which is territorial integrity and, by extension, maritime sovereignty claims in the SCS.
Most Southeast Asian countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore) have responded to China’s aggression by pursuing a security strategy that seeks to hedge against the prevailing uncertainty, insecurity, and instability from the Sino-American strategic rivalry. They address their security concerns and supplement their security shortfalls by pursuing stronger relations with the United States; maintaining good ties with China; building up their own military capabilities and capacities; forging security partnerships among themselves; and looking to regional institutions (ASEAN) and international law (UNCLOS) to manage disputes and temper U.S.-Chinese competition. Much is driven by the uncertainty of U.S. commitment and policy constancy; geographic reality of China (proximity); and the economic benefits derived from good ties with both Beijing and Washington. All told, this creates a geo-political situation in which many regional countries are unwilling to choose between the United States and China, and resist any initiatives that may be perceived as a counterbalancing coalition against Beijing. That may change though, if China overreaches and pushes them too far.
The loss of regional influence did not happen overnight, but was the result of a cumulative aggregation of events through the years. Hindsight suggests China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 was the beginning of the steady slide in regional trust and confidence in America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. Beijing interpreted the weak international and U.S. responses to its bold provocation as an opportunity to press ahead with its strategic agenda in the SCS.
For the next three years, China built land out of extant geographic features for permanent presence and occupation; militarized the new land outcrops for maritime security and power projection; and employed an aggressive legal and diplomatic crusade to characterize the developed geographic features as islands deserving of maritime zones. In 2014, Beijing unilaterally placed an oil-drilling rig in waters 120nm from Vietnam’s coast – near islands claimed by both countries and well within Hanoi’s 200nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) set by international law – and surrounded it with a protective cordon of Chinese fishing boats, PLAN ships, and CCG vessels. In 2015, Beijing tried to intimidate Manila to not submit its arbitration case to the PCA and spent the following year undermining the authority and legitimacy of the court and diminishing the legal and diplomatic impact of the unfavorable ruling.
Hence, the recent events are just the latest in a series of Chinese bullying acts against its regional neighbors and incremental erosion of U.S. standing as the preeminent naval power that ensures the seas are free and open to commerce for all nations. In sum, Southeast Asian leaders took notice of perceived American passivity and acquiescence through the years, and adjusted their foreign policies accordingly and will continue to do so as Washington and Beijing posture (compete) for relative regional dominance.
All things considered, America has had several setbacks, but has not lost the SCS yet. The SCS is a fluid environment that makes any recalibrations transitory. The strategic shift in China’s favor – change in Philippine foreign policy, Manila and Washington’s failure to capitalize on the arbitral tribunal ruling, ASEAN under Manila’s chairmanship, warming relations between Beijing and Bangkok, closer Chinese ties with Laos and Cambodia, Trans-Pacific Partnership withdrawal, inclusion of the RMB in the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights basket, and rise of the Chinese economy to second largest in the world – is not permanent.
Regional sentiments constantly change with the geopolitical and economic tides as evidenced by the tenuous ties between Manila and Beijing; rising friction between Hanoi and Beijing; Hanoi joining the U.S.-led coalition at the last ARF; Hanoi agreeing to host a U.S. aircraft carrier port visit next year; Jakarta renaming the resource-rich northern portion around its Natuna Islands, which lie in the southern end of the SCS (and part of Beijing’s disputed nine-dash line claim), as the North Natuna Sea; developing United States-Japan-Australia trilateral alliance; Tokyo’s continuing outreach to SEA capitals; New Delhi’s making greater inroads into SEA (Act East policy); and slowing Chinese economic growth and persistent worries over rising debt, credit, banking, and social demographic challenges. Opportunities exist for America to regain the strategic initiative in the vital waterway and recover the high ground in diminished regional influence.
This concludes a short discourse on the recent developments in the SCS and the strategic implications thereof; and sets the conditions for further discussion in part two on the ways and means the United States could turn the tide and regain the strategic initiative, recover the high ground of regional influence, and stave off losing the SCS.
Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.