The Debate

What’s Next for the South China Sea?

Destabilizing headwinds risk overturning the general trend toward peace and stability in the South China Sea.

By Wu Shicun for
What’s Next for the South China Sea?

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center, claps his hand after pose for a group photo during the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, July 31, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Thanks to the joint efforts of China and the ASEAN states, the present South China Sea situation has become more peaceful and stable, with tensions being mitigated and promising signs evident. However, various challenges and uncertainties remain, such as the increasing military footprint of extraregional powers, unilateral actions aimed at maximizing the self-interest of various claimant states, the dense complexities entailed in the article-by-article negotiation of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) text, and the persistent impact of the July 12, 2016 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal in the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case. These destabilizing headwinds, along with the advance of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, risk overturning the general trend toward peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Stabilizing Factors in the South China Sea

The South China Sea issue has been cooling down in recent years thanks to the progress made through joint efforts by China and ASEAN as well as relevant ASEAN countries. To begin with, bilateral cooperation between China and ASEAN has been maturing in a comprehensive manner more than 15 years since the establishment of the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership. This relationship has ranged from economic and cultural engagement to security and maritime management. Relations today face a new set of opportunities and stand primed for advancement.

Second, China and ASEAN member countries have made notable breakthroughs in the areas of both traditional and nontraditional security cooperation. For instance, unprecedented progress has been made in marine aquaculture and maritime law enforcement over the past three years. In October 2018, the first China-ASEAN Joint Naval Exercise was held in the South China Sea, which not only marks a new phase of China-ASEAN maritime security cooperation but has additionally provided valuable experiences and insights that are relevant to the development of a new regional security architecture.

Third, the consultation and negotiation of the COC has been progressing steadily and a rules-based, peaceful, and stable South China Sea regional order can be expected to be established within the next three years. During 2017 and 2018, key breakthroughs were made, including successive agreements on a framework as well as a single draft text of the COC.

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Last but not least, the bilateral consultation mechanism between China and the Philippines is functioning well and has delivered positive outcomes, including in the field of joint development. Four meetings have been held since the mechanism was launched in May 2017 and a fifth is scheduled for later this year. This mechanism has become an effective tool for managing differences and promoting pragmatic cooperation between the two countries. This will lay a solid foundation for the final resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea.

Challenges and Uncertainties

In spite of positive trends in the South China Sea as highlighted above, a host of factors may yet bring challenges and uncertainty to regional peace and stability. First, military activities and deployments made by extraregional countries, mainly the United States, are on the rise. Since the Trump administration came into office in 2017, the United States has carried out 13 successive “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) against China. These operations have spanned the Xisha Islands (Paracel Islands), the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) and Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal). Furthermore, the United States has shown a general trend of increasing the number of vessels in each FONOP and its allies and partners, mainly Japan, Australia, and the U.K., have also sent warships into the South China Sea. This increased U.S. presence has roiled the waters of the South China Sea.

Second, certain unilateral actions by claimant states, such as strengthening control over relevant features, development of relevant features, and resource development has shown no signs of abatement. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have all been active in this regard.

Third, the COC consultations have entered a crucial phase of negotiations. Last year, China and the 10 ASEAN countries agreed on a single draft negotiation text. Yet conflicts among all parties have begun to arise as detailed textual negotiation has officially begun in earnest.

Fourth, maritime cooperation and joint development in disputed waters often tend to run into various obstacles. Such predicaments have driven all parties to focus on maximizing their own narrower interests, aggravating in the process the competition – and conflict – over maritime jurisdiction and resource development.

Fifth, the negative impacts of the 2016 arbitral award continue to persist. Although the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has suspended – temporarily – the effects of the arbitral award, domestic opposition forces in the Philippines have been pressing for the award to become the basis for dealing with the South China Sea disputes between China and the Philippines.

Future Developments in the South China Sea

In the coming days, the generally stable tendencies in the South China Sea are unlikely to be reversed. However, given that the challenges listed above are likely to further flare up, the future prospects of the South China Sea may include occasional chaos in the region. Additionally, intermittent escalating tensions, intensified competition, and widening differences are likely to be amplified when the following five features are taken into consideration.

First, the military competition between China and the United States in the South China Sea is bound to increase. Presently, the United States’ overall military posture in the South China Sea mainly features FONOPs and a forward deployment presence, supplemented by bilateral or multilateral joint military exercises, coast guard patrols, and collaboration with allies and partners. Since 2019, the United States has not only enhanced the frequency and intensity of its FONOPs in the South China Sea, but has also formally deployed the U.S. Coast Guard in order to keep a watch on Chinese fishing vessels – termed by US officials and specialists as the “maritime militia.” Concurrently, the United States has announced that it will treat the Chinese Coast Guard and “maritime militia,” which have assisted the Chinese Navy’s operations, in the same way as military personnel. In addition, and in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, there is speculation within certain think tanks(eg. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments)that Washington will initiate plans to deploy more medium and short-range missiles in the Western Pacific in order to maintain its overwhelming military advantage against China.

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Beijing has countered that in such a case it will have to take measures to safeguard its maritime rights and interests, based on history and international law, and meet its needs for national defense and security. Facing these challenges, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations by the United States as well as the intensifying unilateral actions by some claimant states, China may need to increase its facility deployments on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, strengthen maritime law enforcement through its coast guard, and encourage resource exploitation by fishermen and fishing vessels. In this context, the strategic and military competition between China and the United States in the South China Sea will become a critical factor affecting future developments in the South China Sea.

Second, unilateral moves by disputant countries may be another important factor that could lead to escalating tensions in the South China Sea. For example, in pursuit of both economic interests and strategic gains, Vietnam has in recent years been attempting to embroil major energy companies from extraregional powers. These powers include the U.S., U.K., Spain and Russia and, utilizing their flank, Vietnam has been continuing to push forward with its unilateral oil and gas exploration and even exploitation activities. Meanwhile, according to a report issued by the U.S. think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Vietnam, since 2015, has conducted land reclamation and military facility upgrading activities on features that it occupies in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands, also claimed by China. Thus far, Vietnam has expanded Nanwei Dao (Spratly Island) by 40 acres. It has also extended runways and constructed new, large-size hangers to accommodate maritime surveillance aircraft and transport airplanes for military purposes. Malaysia, in the meantime, has been attempting to strengthen its control and even occupation of Qiongtai Jiao of Nankang Ansha (Luconia Breakers of South Luconia Shoals). The Philippines has continued to push forward with construction on Zhongye Dao (Thitu Island) as well as conducting suspicious activities that are likely aimed at occupying and controlling Tiexian Jiao (Sandy Cay). Overall, these unilateral activities could lead to a new round of maritime conflicts, obstruct the COC negotiation and consultation process, and lead to a re-escalation of regional tensions.

Third, differences over the consultation and negotiation of the COC are bound to be accentuated as the text-based discussions are deepened. The COC’s purpose is not to settle the disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation in the South China Sea. Yet these disputes are an essential part of the context of the COC negotiation. Meanwhile, the COC has many implications for a rules-based geopolitical structure in the South China Sea, toward which each relevant party – be it regional or extraregional – is bound to hold varied interests and concerns of its own. For example, China and ASEAN countries hold diverging viewpoints on the COC’s scope of application, its nature (whether it should be legally binding), as well as the various mechanisms under its framework. Some disputant countries may demand that other parties take the ruling of the South China Sea arbitration into consideration as negotiation over the COC text proceeds further. Extraregional powers, such as the United States, Japan, and Australia have also expressed their concerns over the deployment of military facilities on the Nansha Islands as well as the conduct of military activities in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. All these differences will become more noticeable and further complicate the negotiation process of agreeing on the underlying text of the COC.

Fourth, maritime cooperation and joint development could well continue to stagnate. Negative factors precipitating such stagnancy include the lack of trust and political will, populist or nationalist disruption, and the intervention by extraregional powers, among others. In addition, some disputant countries have been attempting to seize this window of opportunity before the conclusion of the COC negotiation and have pushed forward with all sorts of unilateral actions in the name of enforcing the South China Sea arbitration award. Given these difficulties, China’s calls for maritime cooperation and joint development have found little resonance in the region.

Fifth, the South China Sea situation could be headed down a rocky path due to the emerging impact of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. During the latest Shangri-La Dialogue in June this year, the U.S. Department of Defense issued the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report which further specifies the objectives and lines of effort underlying the overall strategy. One of the major prejudiced assumptions noted in the report — that China is using military measures to control the South China Sea — serves as the starting point of the U.S. strategic posture, and the South China Sea region as well as the South China Sea disputes are a central element of its deployments and maneuvers. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy highlights “Partnerships” and the “Promotion of Networked Region” as an essential part of its efforts and emphasizes enhanced deployment of resources and investment in the region. The United States intends to force regional countries of the South China Sea to reluctantly take sides amid an escalating China-U.S. rivalry. Thus, the United States would inflict an undesirable impact on the joint efforts of China and ASEAN countries in developing a rules-based international order by implementing the Indo-Pacific Strategy and making the South China Sea a primary theater of geopolitical contestation between major powers.

On the whole, it is fair to say that China and the ASEAN countries remain committed to the peace and stability of the South China Sea through concerted efforts in managing differences, enhancing mutual trust, advancing COC negotiations, and promoting maritime cooperation. However, regional countries and the international community should be aware of the challenges and disturbing factors facing the South China Sea region and should stay prepared for future incidents and unexpected crises.

Wu Shicun has a Ph.D. in history and is president and senior research fellow of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies as well as chairman of the board of directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea.