With more than two years of relative peace and stability in South China Sea since the conclusion of the South China Sea arbitration, we now see rising tensions sporadically and occasionally in the South China Sea region. Issues that could contribute to such situations are as follows: first, as the negotiation and consultation over the text of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea continues, some claimant states may seize the “window of opportunity” before the conclusion and the effective date of the COC to strengthen their control over relevant features and maritime spaces in the South China Sea. Second, some regional and extra-regional countries may engage in hyping-up China’s “militarization of the South China Sea” as China resumes facility deployments on the Spratlys features. Third, the US-Japan-Australia military alliance looms larger in their geo-military competition against China in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, especially in the context of the Trump Administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
In sum, much as the South China Sea is unlikely to undergo any disruptive change in its general advance towards peace and stability in the future, the possibility of intermittent rising tensions and compartmentalized turmoil will remain high as a result of increasing uncertainties.
New Geopolitical Features of
the South China Sea
First of all, the overall detente in the South China Sea remains unchanged, yet the possibility of periodic and regional turbulence in the future cannot be completely ruled out.
At present, the consultation on the COC has been progressing, Sino-ASEAN security cooperation agreements have been rolled out, and the political will of China and relevant claimant countries over security maintenance and conflict control in the South China Sea have been strengthened. Hence, I do not anticipate a drastic change in the trend towards sustained development in the South China Sea. However, the claimants’ disputes over the territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea remain unsolved. New trends of competition might emerge regarding sea lane control, resource exploitation, and naval supremacy involving parties both inside and outside of the region.
Secondly, the military interactions between China and the United States constitute the greatest challenge in the South China Sea, and the South China Sea will continue to be one of the main factors influencing future Sino-US bilateral relations and regional security.
The Sino-US competition in the South China Sea involves rivalry over geopolitical interests and regional dominance, which is structural and unlikely to change in the near future, as the two sides find it difficult to compromise in the short run. The United States misinterprets China’s construction and facility deployment on the reefs as an attempt to control the entire South China Sea, and then embarks on more frequent "freedom of navigation" operations and other forms of military action to prevent China's legitimate maritime actions. This is the main cause of the escalating conflict and game between the two sides.
Thirdly, Japan, Australia, Britain and other US allies and partners have been following the behavior of the United States on the issue, thus taking provocative military actions against China in the South China Sea.
In my opinion, the United States undermines the peace and stability of the South China Sea and has challenged China's interests in the South China Sea by normalizing “freedom of navigation operations,” strengthening security cooperation with Vietnam, drawing in India, Japan, Australia and Britain and France to intervene in the South China Sea. Japan is in the process of constructing an “Indo-Pacific Strategy” targeting China as its strategic opponent, and unites the United States, India, Australia, and other regional actors to oppose China’s construction of so-called “military bases” in the Indian Ocean. They assist South Asian nations with their rejection of China's investment and political support. Australia expands and deepens its military cooperation with the United States and supports American military operations in the Indo-Pacific region to offset China's political and economic influence in the Indian Ocean.
China and ASEAN countries should promote exchanges and cooperation in the fields of marine tourism, maritime connectivity, marine affairs, humanities, and social affairs around the South China Sea to enhance mutual trust, resolve differences and create a good external environment.
Fourthly, the United States, Japan and Australia have been promoting a narrative of militarization of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea as an excuse to expand their military presence in the region to maximize their geopolitical interests.
The United States believes that China is militarizing this region as it builds and deploys facilities and equipment with military characteristics and is equipped with military capabilities in the South China Sea. This is the rationale for the United States to expand its military presence in the South China Sea and challenge China’s perceived excessive maritime claims through freedom of navigation operations. However, the misinterpretation and hostile military actions by other major regional actors on China’s constructions in the South China Sea will only aggravate the misjudgment and lack of mutual trust, which will lead to increasing risk of maritime conflicts.
Fifthly, China’s competition with countries, including the United States and Japan, over the voice and influence on the building of cooperation mechanisms and rules in the South China Sea is inevitable.
Driven by factors such as the security dilemma, the United States, Japan, Britain and Australia intend to maintain the balance of power in the South China Sea by intervening in the formulation of regional rules with a Cold War mentality, fearing that China might dominate the order in the South China Sea. The United States also attempts to use some countries in the region as agents to interfere with the consultation process of COC and to influence the regional security order building promoted by China and ASEAN countries.
Opportunities and Challenges for Security Cooperation in the South China Sea
The current situation in the South China Sea is stabilizing. The awareness of the need to have national security cooperation has been significantly enhanced in the South China Sea. Cooperation in non-traditional security areas under the framework of The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is progressing in an orderly manner, and other forms of cooperation in non-sensitive or low-sensitive areas are also welcomed by the countries concerned. The main challenges facing the current security cooperation in the South China Sea are as follows:
The military presence of outside countries represented by the United States in the South China Sea has deteriorated the security environment of the region. The US intervention in the South China Sea affairs will force Southeast Asian countries to “pick a side” between China and the United States, thus impeding future security cooperation in this region.
The negative impact of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” initiated by the United States on the security cooperation in the South China Sea will gradually emerge. Under the framework of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, the United States and its allies will increase their military deployment in the South China Sea, expand the scope of military activities, and enhance the level of military cooperation with the littoral states in the South China Sea. This will lead to a more complex and volatile security situation in the South China Sea, making it more difficult for countries in this region to carry out security cooperation.
The non-traditional security cooperation in the South China Sea has made slow progress because of the unabated heat of traditional security issues, the neglect of non-traditional security cooperation and the lack of binding force and enforcement of relevant cooperation mechanisms.
As an important promoter and participant of the existing cooperation mechanism and a defender of peace and stability in the South China Sea, China should follow the guidelines put forward by president Xi Jinping to “build a community with shared future for mankind,” “settle disputes through dialogue and resolve differences through consultation,” and implement the concepts of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness” in building good-neighborly relationship and partnership with the neighboring countries. China should coordinate its “three major relationships” with the US, ASEAN, and other claimants, handling well the “three pairs of contradictions” between international and domestic affairs, safeguarding rights and maintaining stability, and between major powers and the surrounding countries; and fulfilling the “three major tasks” of the follow-up construction of the island and reefs, maritime cooperation, and the consultation over the COC text, so as to bring stability and order in the South China Sea.
With regard to the COC text consultation, China and ASEAN countries should actively consider making the COC legally binding and empowered with functions of mediating and resolving specific maritime disputes other than territorial and maritime jurisdiction disputes, so that the future COC can become a true stability anchor safeguarding the peace and stability in the South China Sea.
As for island and reef construction, China should strengthen the construction of civil facilities to provide the international community with public services including search and rescue, navigational safety, fishermen aids and fishing boats supply, etc. enhancing China's voice and influence on the existing regional security cooperation mechanism, and guiding the development of regional cooperation mechanism in a more inclusive, open and constructive manner.
Driven by the concept of the “Economic Cooperation Circle of the Greater South China Sea Region” and the construction of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” China and ASEAN countries should promote exchanges and cooperation in the fields of marine tourism, maritime connectivity, marine affairs, humanities, and social affairs around the South China Sea to enhance mutual trust, resolve differences and create a good external environment for the final settlement of the South China Sea issue and thus achieve long-term stability in the South China Sea.