The Maritime Silk Road and South China Sea Disputes
By Hong Zhao

The Maritime Silk Road and South China Sea Disputes

Dec. 12, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In September 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the building of the New Silk Road Economic Belt during his visit to Kazakhstan, and in the same year in Indonesia, he proposed the building of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The MSR initiative aims to create a modern network of high-speed railways, motorways, pipelines and ports stretching across South and Southeast Asia.

The MSR initiative provides a new opportunity for China-ASEAN oil and gas joint development in the South China Sea. On one hand, ASEAN countries’ intention to promote economic growth through development of oil and gas resources is consistent with China’s diversified energy security strategy.

On the other hand, the MSR initiative coincides with ASEAN countries’ maritime development and regional connectivity strategy, thus helping both reach a consensus on joint development in the South China Sea and achieve new breakthroughs towards solving their territorial disputes.

For example, it was in Indonesia that the MSR initiative was first proposed, and it has the potential to be synergized with President Jokowi’s vision of Indonesia as a global maritime axis. Jokowi’s strategic move to locate Indonesia as the global maritime center promotes connectivity between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, thereby positioning Indonesia as the pivotal country promoting stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The joint statement issued at the end of President Jokowi’s March 2015 China visit said that Xi and Jokowi agreed that the MSR and the Global Maritime Axis were highly complementary. The two countries agreed to work to synergize their maritime interests and plans.1

But for Southeast Asian countries, they have two serious concerns which might increase distrust between China and ASEAN, and this may become a bottleneck of the MSR construction. One is about China’s nine-dash line, and the other is whether China is undermining ASEAN’s unity.

Concerns about the Nine-Dash Line

Although the South China Sea arbitration case has come to an end, Southeast Asian countries’ concern over China’s nine-dash line has increased rather than perished. For example, after the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China defined for the first time the legal meaning of China’s nine-dash line, affirming that all islets within this line were China’s sovereign territory, together with all adjacent waters of these islets as China’s territorial waters. In Vietnamese view, “China’s expanded concept of maritime sovereignty constitutes a serious challenge to Vietnam’s territorial integrity.”2

Indonesia also holds that the nine-dash line sweeps through its EEZ north of the Natuna Islands, an area of rich fisheries and potentially enormous natural gas deposits. For China, the nine-dash line marks the outer limits of its sovereign claims in the South China Sea, while for Indonesia there is no common sea border or overlap with China. This was made clear in Jakarta’s submission to the UN in 2010 that stated that the nine-dash line “clearly lacks international legal status and is tantamount to upset the UNCLOS 1982”.3 In the Indonesian view, “Indonesia’s maritime ambitions could hardly be achieved if the South China Sea became a Chinese lake, ruled and regulated by Chinese domestic law, not UNCLOS, and patrolled down to and even beyond the nine-dash line by China’s coast guard and navy.”4

Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, also notes that “China’s atypical emotional defence of the nine-dash line in the South China Sea goes against its larger global interests,” and he believes China has prioritized its regional interests ahead of its global interests.5

Joint development agreements may not be concluded as long as the claimants have not clarified their ambiguous claims in conformity with UNCLOS.

The prospect for joint development in the South China Sea has been under discussion since the early 1990s. Yet little progress has been made up until now. From the Southeast Asian perspectives, Beijing has not suggested that the ‘shelving’ of the territorial disputes and the promotion of joint development mean that their sovereign claims have become less strong, or that joint development would lead to longer-term prospects for territorial compromises, as China had indicated that “Beijing would only concede to joint cooperative activities if the other claimants first acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea”.6

The possibility of joint development relies on a critical precondition that there is consensus on areas in dispute that may be subject to a joint development arrangement. Yet, for the claimant countries, the sovereignty and security concerns may well be above joint development. Hence, Beckman, a law expert at the National University of Singapore, notes that joint development agreements may not be concluded in the South China Sea as long as the claimants have not clarified their ambiguous claims in conformity with UNCLOS.

Undermining ASEAN Centrality?

In recent years, there have been serious concerns in Southeast Asia that China has began to undermine ASEAN’s unity. Yes, in theory, China can afford to alienate the 10 relatively weak ASEAN member states, although in practice, China and its initiatives are assisting ASEAN member countries and strengthening ASEAN by enhancing infrastructure in Southeast Asia.

For example, at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting hosted by Cambodia in July 2012, because of Cambodia’s refusal to accommodate some other members’ request to include references to incidents in the South China Sea in the final communique, the meeting failed for the first time to issue a joint statement. In their view, “some ASEAN countries’ national interests are sacrificed to ASEAN solidarity.”7

More recently, at their 49th annual meeting in July 2016, ASEAN foreign ministers also failed to reach a consensus on mentioning in their joint communique the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Hence, in some Southeast Asian countries’ view, “Should it continue to fail in addressing the intensifying tensions in the South China Sea, ASEAN’s ability to maintain and enhance peace will be questioned.”8

Moreover, at present, many railway construction projects and jointly-run industrial parks have been conducted within a bilateral cooperative framework. This has aroused serious concerns in Southeast Asia that China’s bilateral approach lends structural advantage to China to set the terms and shape the economic and political future of some ASEAN countries, and this in turn may affect unity within ASEAN. In this sense, the MSR could at the same time, also erode ASEAN unity and undermine its consensus principle as it brings benefits.

Build Political and Strategic Trust

For China, the construction of the MSR is the primary strategic objective for the time being. Although this initiative is mainly an infrastructure investment and trade initiative, it has strong political and security dimensions. It can be seen to be in the best interests of every country for China’s investment in those countries to increase and for trade to expand. It can also be interpreted as a “geopolitical conspiracy” if consensus on the initiative cannot be achieved and mutual confidence is lacking. Hence, China needs to cultivate much-needed political and strategic trust with the Southeast Asian countries.

In order to reduce the security concerns of the ASEAN countries and increase mutual trust, Chinese scholars suggest that China should substantiate its insistence on the nine-dash line and put forward its own roadmap for dispute resolution.

Others suggest that China needs to move from providing economic assistance to providing more security assistance to the ASEAN countries. For example, Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University believes that, “instead of focusing on the large-scale construction of islands which is of high-cost and low-efficiency, China can provide more military and security assistance to Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.”9 This will largely enhance the overall level of strategic cooperation between China and the Southeast Asian countries, and largely increase the mutual trust between China and ASEAN.

Indeed, as the largest country among the claimant states in the South China Sea and a major power in Asia Pacific and the world, China should prioritize its global interests and exercise more leadership in facilitating joint development in the South China Sea. This holds prospects for longer-term territorial compromises and can become an underpinning factor for peace and stability in the region.


1. Joint statement of strengthening comprehensive strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Indonesia. (2015, March 27). Retrieved from

2. Nguyen, M. H. (2016). New Context of Vietnam’s National Security Challenges. Trends in Southeast Asia, No. 17.

3. Cited in Weatherbee, D. E. (2016). Understanding Jokowi’s foreign policy. Trends in Southeast Asia, No. 12.

4. Weatherbee, D. E. (2016). Re-assessing Indonesia’s role in the South China Sea. ISEAS Perspective, No. 18.

5. Mahbubani, K. (2016, November 22). ASEAN still the critical catalyst for China’s future. The Strait Times.

6. Andrews-Speed, P. and Dannreuther, R. (2011). China, Oil and Global Politics. Roudledge, p. 147.

7. Weatherbee, D. E. (2016). Re-assessing Indonesia’s role in the South China Sea. ISEAS Perspective, No. 18.

8. Le, H. H. (2016, October 24). Can ASEAN overcome the ‘consensus dilemma’ over the South China Sea? ISEAS Perspective, No. 58.

9. Tan, A. (2016, November 11). Improvement in Sino-Philippines relations presents an opportunity for Southeast Asian strategic rearrangement. South Reviews. (in Chinese). Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *