With the closing of the South China Sea arbitration case, the parties concerned gradually returned to the normal track of bilateral talks and consultations for resolving the South China Sea disputes. Countries outside the region also shifted their attention from the disputes to cooperation in the South China Sea. The leaders of countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia visited Beijing in succession and a series of new consensuses — resolving disputes through talks and consultations, managing crises, promoting cooperation, and speeding up their consultations on the Code of Conduct for issues in the South China Sea — were reached. Under the current situation, the untimely attempts by a few countries to stir up waves in the South China Sea are doomed to fail, due to a lack of support from countries in the region.
US Policy of Containing China Remains
How shall we evaluate the current situation in the South China Sea? Does it mean we finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, or does it mean the South China Sea issue has been resolved once and for all? How can we keep improving the situation in this region? To answer these questions, we should first understand the essence of the South China Sea issue, as well as how conflicts and competition between China and the US have developed over the South China Sea issue.
The South China Sea region had remained peaceful and there were no disputes in this region until the 1970s when oil and natural gas were found there. These disputes intensified with the creation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1982. In the 21st century, due to the intervention of some countries outside the region, especially the US’ promotion of its Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, the South China Sea disputes gradually evolved into fierce competition among the countries involved in the dispute and other stakeholders over geopolitics, control of waterways, and exploitation of natural resources. This was also because of the attempts of the other claimant states in the dispute to maximize their interests and consolidate their illegal occupations in the South China Sea region.
There were changes in the nature of the disputes over the South China Sea and the rules of the game in this region. Moreover, the parties in dispute and other stakeholders readjusted their strategic objectives and interests. Consequently, geopolitical competition has become the major factor behind the South China Sea issues. First, the South China Sea is becoming increasingly important in the US’ Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy and, as a result, competition between China and the US over geopolitics and maritime rights in the region have become more and more evident. Second, in the future, military competition will be one of the most distinct features of geopolitical competition in the region. With military competition between China and the US as the main theme, it is likely that the US or its allies will normalize and institutionalize the sailing of their naval vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s isles and reefs. In the future, the US is also likely to set up more military bases and strengthen its military cooperation with countries around the South China Sea to maintain its military edge over China. In addition, the US will strive to hold sway on rulemaking concerning regional security mechanisms to maintain its hegemony in the region and protect its geopolitical interests. For instance, it might exert influence on the consultation on the code of conduct in the South China Sea, attempt to play a dominant role in the East Asia Summit, or advocate for the application of the Code of Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to China Coast Guard vessels.
The US policy of containing China militarily and diplomatically will not undergo disruptive changes.
However, it is worth considering that the current period of opportunity for China might be prolonged due to a readjustment of the Asia-Pacific strategy by the new administration in the US. We should seize this opportunity to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation by promoting maritime cooperation and joint development. The strategic environment for us to plan and manage the South China Sea might be somewhat improved. A period of temporary relative stability in the region could be the outcome of a readjustment and reshaping of the security pattern in the Asia-Pacific region due to the power shift of political parties in the US.
How should we evaluate the role the South China Sea plays in Sino-US relations? And how should we evaluate the impact of competition between China and the US in the South China Sea on the overall situation in the region? From the US perspective, the South China Sea issue has a bearing on freedom of navigation, international laws and rules, as well as the interests of the allies and partners of the US. Consequently, competition between China and the US in the South China Sea region will continue to exist regardless of whether the Trump administration chooses to press ahead with the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy. Such competition will be intensified with the rise of China and the rising interests of the US in the South China Sea region. Meanwhile, the conflicts and competition between China and the US are structural, strategic, and even irreconcilable, and the conflicts between the two countries involve fights over geopolitics, maritime rights, and hegemony in East Asia. Judging from this, we can say that the US policy of containing China militarily and diplomatically will not undergo disruptive changes.
The Future of the South China Sea Situation
However, claimant countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia have changed their attitudes towards China and readjusted their policies on the South China Sea issue. As a result, the high tension caused by the arbitration award on the South China Sea issue has gradually eased, and the parties concerned have returned to the normal track of talks and consultations for the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. China, with the extension of islands and reefs, is now almost ready to provide public service products to the countries in the region as well as the international community, and steady progress is being made on the consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. As the builder and defender of a stable South China Sea, China should take advantage of the favorable situation in the South China Sea region to maintain stability. China should also keep improving the situation in the region by strengthening its relations with the US, the other claimant countries, and the ASEAN countries.
First, China and the US should build a military-to-military relationship in the South China Sea to avoid miscalculations, reduce conflicts, and manage and control crisis. The US should refrain from close reconnaissance activities or entering within 12 nautical miles of China’s islands and reefs. It should stop putting pressure on China through arbitration or including its allies such as Japan into its joint patrols in the South China Sea. And it should also refrain from building military bases targeting China in the regions around the South China Sea or conducting joint military exercises targeting China. China, in return, should ensure that the other countries enjoy freedom of navigation in accordance with international law. It should also avoid over-militarizing the construction of reefs and islands, or announcing the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) above the South China Sea at this moment.
Second, China and the ASEAN countries should step up their consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and work out the timetable and roadmap for consultations. It is urgent and necessary to make rules because rulemaking contributes to the establishment of security and crisis management mechanisms in the South China Sea region. The steady progress in consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, to a certain extent, can fend off the involvement and intervention in the South China Sea affairs by countries outside the region.
Third, we should fulfill the obligation of cooperation between states bordering enclosed or semi-enclosed seas as stipulated in Article 123 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and strive to set up a cooperation mechanism for the littoral states in the South China Sea region. For example, starting from fisheries cooperation, we can reach multilateral agreements on fisheries and determine the total allowable catch of fishery resources, fishing seasons, and fishing regimes in the disputed areas. Starting from the urgent but less sensitive fields and adhering to the principle of doing the easier and simpler things first, we should step up our efforts to promote maritime cooperation and make cooperation the main theme of the South China Sea.
Fourth, we should launch consultations between China and the littoral states of the South China Sea on the Code of Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea for coast guard vessels to avoid accidents at sea due to a lack of rules for maritime law enforcement. Meanwhile, the civilian facilities on some of the reefs and islands of China can be used as platforms for humanitarian aid cooperation with neighboring countries.
Finally, a bilateral consultation mechanism, which is intended to manage crises and resolve disputes, should be built between China and states in dispute (China-Vietnam, China-Philippines, China-Malaysia, and China-Brunei) to turn the dual-track approach from a concept into reality. With the improvement of the relationship between China and the Philippines, a high-level consultation mechanism between the two governments can be built to conduct consultations and discussions on the issues of the South China Sea dispute between both countries, fishing access around Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal), crisis management, and joint development.
The peace and stability in the South China Sea is of vital importance to the development interests and well-being of the states and people in this region, and it is also of great concern to the whole international community. Therefore, we should restore peace to the region and return to the normal track of talks and consultations for the solution of the South China Sea disputes. The claimant countries, the littoral states, the stakeholders, and even the whole international community should make unremitting joint efforts to ensure lasting peace and stability in the South China Sea region.