Navigating South China Sea Security in 2024

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Navigating South China Sea Security in 2024

A look back at the strategic dynamics of the maritime disputes in 2023, and what we might expect in the new year.

Navigating South China Sea Security in 2024

A Chinese Coast Guard ship allegedly obstructs the Philippine Coast Guard vessel Malabrigo as it provided support during a Philippine Navy operation near Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, June 30, 2023.

Credit: Philippine Coast Guard

The strategic dynamics of the South China Sea in 2023 have been marked by a complex interplay of diplomatic efforts, military posturing, regional cooperation, and legal disputes. Against this backdrop, China’s recent appointment of Admiral Dong Jun as the new defense minister has introduced a notable shift in leadership, posing potential implications for the ongoing China-U.S. strategic competition in the blue waters.

During a recent meeting in San Francisco in November, the leaders of China and the United States concurred on the resumption of high-level military communication, including the China-U.S. Defense Policy Coordination Talks and the China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings. They also agreed to facilitate telephone conversations between theater commanders. 

A significant development occurred on December 21 when General Liu Zhenli, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), engaged in a video call with General Charles Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military. The discussion encompassed the implementation of crucial military-related consensus from the San Francisco meeting and delved into various shared concerns. The video call resulted in positive and constructive outcomes. Beijing anticipated that Washington would collaborate in fostering the China-U.S. military-to-military relationship, adhering to principles of equality and respect. Specific exchange programs are currently under discussion between the defense authorities of both nations, a positive signal for 2024. 

South China Sea Security Landscape: An Overview

2023 started out fairly promising in terms of the South China Sea. In January 2023, China and the Philippines engaged in diplomatic efforts, emphasizing the resolution of maritime issues through amicable negotiations. The highlight was Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s visit to Beijing. Both nations expressed a commitment to peaceful dispute resolution in the ensuing joint statement. The establishment of direct communication mechanisms through the respective foreign ministries underscored a diplomatic channel to manage maritime concerns.

Yet quickly the warm dynamics were marred. In February 2023, the Philippines accused a China Coast Guard ship of using a military-grade laser against a Philippine Coast Guard vessel near the Second Thomas Shoal. Run-ins near the disputed shoal, which hosts a permanent Philippine troop presence aboard a ground naval vessel, would continue and escalate toward the end of 2023, with the latest incident in December involving water cannons and a collision

Meanwhile, the United States continued to demonstrate a military presence in the South China Sea, conducting activities such as carrier deployments, joint exercises, and agreements with regional partners, including the Philippines. The U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to the region, addressing concerns related to the South China Sea and emphasizing its strategic interests. Multinational joint exercises, such as Cobra Gold 2023, reflected a shared focus on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and regional security. 

Meanwhile, ASEAN member states engaged in discussions with China on implementing the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” and negotiating a “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.”

A significant legal development involved the Philippine Supreme Court declaring the maritime seismic agreement between the Philippines, China, and Vietnam unconstitutional and invalid. This ruling underscored the ongoing legal dimension in addressing territorial and maritime disputes.

Philippine Strategic Posture: A Multifaceted Approach

The Philippines strengthened military ties with the United States by continuing to expand implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, showcasing collaborative efforts in the defense domain. Additionally, Manila’s discussions with Australia indicated a willingness to seek support from multiple sources for regional affairs.

Proposed legislation in the Philippines aimed at establishing marine protected areas around the Kalayaan Islands and Scarborough Shoal demonstrated a commitment to preserving marine ecosystems and resources.

Marcos emphasized the resolution of South China Sea issues through amicable negotiations. The prospect of a fisheries partnership with China suggested a cooperative approach to address maritime challenges.

Joint military exercises with the United States, such as the Balikatan exercise, showcased a heightened level of cooperation. The release of the Bilateral Defense Guidelines emphasized a joint commitment to the defense of the South China Sea.

The Philippines expressed intentions to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea with countries including the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, France, India, and Singapore. This plan aimed at reinforcing maritime security through collaborative efforts. The Philippines also enhanced its presence in the South China Sea by establishing a coast guard station on Thitu Island, reinforcing monitoring capabilities.

Projections for 2024: Navigating Challenges

The South China Sea is likely to witness sustained tensions, with frequent joint military exercises, navigation challenges, and territorial disputes. The dynamic interplay between China and the United States may contribute to an environment marked by strategic competition.

Collaborative efforts among regional actors, including ASEAN countries and extraregional partners, will play a crucial role in shaping the South China Sea landscape. Discussions on the Code of Conduct and joint initiatives may evolve, influencing regional stability.

Legal avenues may continue to be pursued by claimant states to address maritime disputes. International legal mechanisms will remain essential in defining the legitimacy of claims and fostering adherence to established norms.

The selection of Admiral Dong Jun as China’s new defense minister is a significant move, bringing a seasoned navy veteran with a deep understanding of maritime affairs to the forefront of China’s defense apparatus. As the former top commander of China’s navy, Dong played a pivotal role in advancing President Xi Jinping’s vision of a modern oceangoing navy capable of safeguarding China’s interests beyond its immediate waters.

Dong’s role as China’s defense minister introduces a maritime perspective to the top echelons of China’s defense apparatus. His experience overseeing naval forces in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait positions him uniquely to address maritime challenges, potentially impacting the strategic balance in the blue waters.

His appointment holds broader implications for China-U.S. relations, as it follows the first formal talks between Washington and Beijing’s military leadership in 16 months. The choice of Dong may facilitate top-level military dialogues, seen as crucial for stabilizing relations between the two major powers. Although the official communication channel between China and the U.S. military is yet to be resumed, the high-level meetings indicated positive signals easing the tensions. 

In conclusion, the South China Sea remains a focal point of geopolitical dynamics, characterized by diplomatic intricacies, military assertiveness, and legal complexities. The appointment of Dong adds a new dimension to China’s defense leadership, warranting careful observation of its implications on regional stability and the ongoing China-U.S. strategic competition in the maritime domain. As 2024 unfolds, navigating the challenges of the South China Sea will require nuanced diplomacy, collaborative regional efforts, and a commitment to upholding international norms.