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By Yongnian Zheng

The South China Sea Dispute: Peering into the Crystal Ball

May. 03, 2016  |     |  0 comments


The South China Sea (SCS) issue has become increasingly complicated and is proving to be a tough nut to crack. The US Defense Secretary postponed his trip to China because of the SCS dispute. In the recently concluded G7 meeting in Japan, while the Foreign Ministers' Statement on Maritime Security did not specifically mention China, it was clearly critical of China's exploits in the SCS. The joint war games between the US and the Philippines, the participation of Japan, and even concerns shown by countries like Australia, were all carried out with China in mind. It is clear that the US has a significant role in the state of play. Although China has repeatedly clarified to the US that the island disputes in the SCS are an issue of sovereignty and that they are bilateral disagreements with the related countries, the US seems bent on its intervention policy. Observers have also noted that countries in the region have become more united and have reached a consensus in their approach to China. In essence, a new alliance led by the US with an agenda to oppose China has emerged and its goal is to force China to "relent" on its territorial claims.


From China's point of view, there is not much space for it to back down. Firstly, China is not the first country to reclaim or build islands in the SCS; countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have engaged in these activities even before China. In fact, China has been reactive in its response to other countries’ behavior in the SCS, but the speed and scale of its island-building activities have greatly surpassed what all the other countries have done in the past few years. This has made China an easy target. Secondly, if China does nothing while other countries stake their claims in the SCS, then the ruling party will definitely face a legitimacy crisis. The Chinese people will not allow a rising China to recede on its sovereignty claims. Nationalistic feelings are at play here, be it in Vietnam, the Philippines, or China. If China backtracks on its hard-earned territorial claims in the SCS, its leaders will have to answer to the strong nationalistic feelings in the country. In fact, when the opposing voice from outside China becomes louder, the people of China will feel even more patriotic and protective of their country. And of course, it will be the same for the other claimant countries.


As such, is it all gloom and doom in the outlook of the SCS dispute as predicted by some observers? Will China’s engagements with other countries in the SCS escalate into open confrontation or even war?



The US has strategically misjudged China’s activities in the SCS as nascent imperialism on the part of China.



The SCS problem does not have an easy answer and it will require some detailed analysis. It consists of three layers of relationships, that is, the relationship between China and the US, China and ASEAN, and China and other claimant countries, respectively. The three layers are connected, but we need to analyze them separately as we will face different issues in each layer.


In terms of the China-US relationship, there are several considerations in the US’ SCS policy. First, its most important concern is “freedom of navigation.” “Freedom of navigation” means that the US can go to any place it wants to. In fact, to protect its freedom to navigate, the US has not formally ratified the international law of the sea as stated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The recent US Navy patrol near an island in the disputed Paracel Islands, also known as Xisha in Chinese, is precisely a display of this freedom. The Americans know the difference between the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands (also known as Nansha in Chinese), although the Paracel Islands are not as controversial as the Spratly Islands. Second, the US has strategically misjudged China’s activities in the SCS as nascent imperialism on the part of China. It is understandable that the US thinks this way, because it has projected its own history of imperial expansionism onto China. Third, the US is worried that militarization will affect regional peace. China has emphasized from the start that its facilities on the disputed islands are for non-military purposes, and even if there are, they are only for necessary defense purposes. When we look at China’s military prowess, especially its missile capabilities, it makes little difference to locate some of its weapons on Hainan Island and the Spratly Islands. In fact, it was the US’ freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the SCS that have caused China’s militarization. In other words, China’s militarization is only to tell the US that if China is willing, it can achieve what it wants too.


Although Japan is also concerned about the FONOPs in the SCS, its own agenda in the SCS dispute takes precedence over it being an ally of the US. It is necessary for Japan to expand its influence geopolitically in order to become a normal country again. In Asia today, Japan’s geopolitical space is in Southeast Asia. It is thus natural for Japan to make use of this opportunity to ride on the US-Japan alliance to barge into the affairs of Southeast Asia.


In terms of China-ASEAN relationship, there are two different groups of ASEAN countries: the claimant and the non-claimant countries. Although the latter group has no sovereignty conflicts with China, it needs to concern itself with issues related to the SCS dispute, such as freedom of navigation, regional stability, the unity of ASEAN, etc. This group of nations has quite a few demands on China too; they are asking China for clear definitions on the "nine-dash line,” sovereignty, the difference between islands and maritime boundaries, the code of conduct between China and ASEAN, etc. From China's perspective, the problem here is a conflict between history and legality. Compared to China, ASEAN countries are smaller in size and they will lean towards using international law. There is such a phenomenon in international politics, that is, big countries are not in favor of using international law while smaller countries will use international law to protect their rights. In the SCS dispute, there exists a huge chasm between the UNCLOS and China’s historical rights. The SCS issue is an old problem and the “nine-dash line” is a relic inherited from China’s past, whereas UNCLOS is a relatively recent creation. While we should honor history, as with all laws and regulations, the UNCLOS is about achieving universality. China has been avoiding the “nine-dash line” issue, simply because it believes that a modern law cannot solve a complicated historical problem. Speaking from experience, if ASEAN (and the US) force China to define the “nine-dash line,” it is certain that China will say “It belongs to us.” As the Chinese leadership is facing heightened nationalism at home, none of its leaders will dare to say “No it doesn’t belong to us” to outsiders. If China gives a clear definition, it will definitely add oil to the raging fire. So it seems that China is right in being vague on this issue.



If there is any trouble, China’s economy will be adversely affected as more than 80 percent of its import and export trade pass through the SCS.



Further, ASEAN's strategies are debatable. There is actually a big improvement in China’s handling of the issues: at first, the SCS is only a vague idea; now, at the very least, China has distinguished between islands and maritime boundaries. China is emphasizing the sovereignty issue of the islands, whereas all countries are concerned about the safety of the waterways in the region. There is no reason for China to endanger the safety of the waterways in the SCS. If there is any trouble, China’s economy will be adversely affected as more than 80 percent of its import and export trade pass through the SCS. China has also said that it will use a “twin-track approach,” that is, it will seek a peaceful solution through friendly consultations and negotiations directly with the claimant countries, and that it will safeguard the peace and stability of the SCS jointly with ASEAN countries. In other words, it will use bilateral talks to solve the sovereignty issues, while the safety of the waterways is a multilateral issue. Moreover, if ASEAN as an entity is not able to make any of its members fall in line, China will find it hard to trust the organization. Thus, China is trying the avoid this scenario: ASEAN forming a consensus on issues that are unfavorable to China, and then not forming any consensus on issues that are favorable to China. This lesson has been learnt from China’s dealings with the European Union.


The relationship between China and the other claimant countries is the crux of the problem. China has been neighbors with these countries for thousands of years. Essentially, they get along and solve problems, and also understand the complexity of the SCS issue. In fact, China and Vietnam solved their land border dispute long ago without resorting to any international laws. In the process, China also made quite a few concessions. This case proved that it is unfair to call China a big bully to smaller nations. As mentioned above, smaller countries usually resort to international laws to protect themselves. But when the laws and regulations are not helpful, they turn to external partners (big countries, mainly the US) to maximize their interests. With the US in the picture, the SCS dispute has become a complicated geopolitical issue. Countries with US’ backing do things differently from countries without US’ backing. Vietnam and the Philippines are showing a tough attitude, whereas Malaysia is still rational in its approach. Of course, we cannot rule out a change of behavior if any of these countries change their leaders.


The SCS dispute appears to have run into an impasse. It is not necessarily a bad thing, for the parties concerned will search harder for a solution. However, they must ensure that the situation will not escalate into an open confrontation or a war. China has a crucial part to play and it must heed the following:


One, China is in the driver’s seat. China used to be the one responding to others’ actions; now other nations are reacting to China’s actions. Two, China needs to be patient, as rationality is borne from patience. When faced with others’ behavior, China must not act on impulse. It must be prudent in its approach, especially now that it is in the driver’s seat. Three, China must be confident. The cost of the US’ FONOPS in the SCS is sky-high, whereas China’s activities in the SCS cost much less. So long as China has no expansionist ideas, the US activities will not last long. Four, there is still much diplomatic space to maneuver between China and ASEAN. Most of the ASEAN countries want to be friends rather than enemies of China. In the recent Sunnylands Summit, Barack Obama and ASEAN leaders did not specifically mention the SCS issue. It showed that ASEAN as an entity does not want to overly antagonize China. In fact, the two sides are highly dependent on each other economically. Five, there is also room for improvement in terms of the relationship with other claimant countries. China is not like the US, who severed its relations with Cuba for half a century. China does not take things to the extreme, as shown in its warm trade ties with Vietnam, the Philippines, etc., while things are cool on the political and diplomatic fronts. Thus, there is a silver lining in the relationships. Once these countries become less friendly with the US, or pin their hopes less on the US, their ties with China will improve. Six, China can be more open when dealing with big countries, such as allowing the US and ASEAN countries to use its facilities to jointly maintain maritime safety. Seven, after all the relevant countries have actually occupied some of the islands, China can lead the way in opening up new negotiations, so that all parties can embark on a “shelving disputes and seeking common development” path, as championed by Deng Xiaoping.


If the SCS dispute becomes an international conflict, it will adversely affect China’s domestic development and external ties. If the situation can be contained and the problem solved amiably, then China will become a shining example of a country on a peaceful rise. As a great nation with increasing capabilities, China has immense potential to achieve this.


(Translated by Chean Chian Cheong)

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