Suggestions on De-escalation of the South China Sea Situation
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Generally, the South China Sea situation is cooling down compared with the period of 2009 to 2016. However, the power competition between China and the US, as well as the disputes on maritime delimitation and resource exploitation, is intensifying. By now, all of the related parties still sincerely express their willingness to have more dialogue and manage differences. The question is how to do it when everyone is pursuing a two-pronged policy. Here are following suggestions to related parties.
Ⅰ. It is imperative that China and the US enhance the quality of maritime strategic dialogue.
To date, China and the US has not held any in-depth substantial talks over the situation of the South China Sea. Both sides are still reiterating their positions through various mechanisms, including the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (2+2). China asks the US not to violate China’s sovereignty over its islands and reefs or to infringe on its security and rights, while the US stresses that China should not undermine the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, intimidate neighbors or engage in the “militarization” of islands and reefs. Nonetheless, the focal issue of China-US contention is not about sovereignty or freedom of navigation. Instead, it is about power and orders. What concerns the US with regard to islands and reefs is not sovereignty but China’s capability to build installations on them; no evidence suggests that China’s “nine-dash line” claim undermines the freedom of navigation beyond the 12-nautical-mile limit of islands stationed by China or the territorial waters of Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and no sails including those of warships and military aircrafts have encountered any substantial obstruction. To some extent, both sides attempt to limit the ability of the other side to operate in the waters by stressing basic international norms, including sovereignty and freedom of navigation, which sounds morally correct. The US, in particular, is well aware of the fact that China cannot control the South China Sea. Yet, it continues to direct domestic and international attention to such a possibility with various policies.
As China-US strategic competition over the waters intensifies, they should give priority to substantive issues including arms control, power structure and rules for military operations rather than superficial problems, such as sovereignty and freedom of navigation. As the situation of the South China Sea unfolds, neither side could afford to waste any more time. If they could not reach consensus on core issues of the waters in the future, including the power structure, codes of conduct and maritime orders, armed conflicts might actually break out. Therefore, we encourage both sides to stop hovering over superficial issues to focus on essential and meaningful concerns. Now that China has not act in any way to compromise freedom of navigation, the US should stop taking sides regarding sovereignty issues or maritime delimitation, so that a supportive and encouraging atmosphere can be created for in-depth bilateral dialogue. At present, the US still seems to hold an official neutral stance in the sovereignty of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. However, it has already taken its side in the maritime boundary delimitation and the ruling of the South China Sea arbitration, which actually concerns territorial sovereignty and maritime rights. This has further complicated the matters.
Ⅱ. Extraregional powers, including Japan, Australia and the UK, should play an important role in easing the tensions over the waters.
Intensified China-US competition in the waters is bound to narrow the strategic space of Japan, Australia and the UK, although they will not hesitate to take the US side, which is an easy choice for them. What remains unclear is to what extent they will employ the flexibility of their policy, which is vital to ease the tensions over the waters. If they choose to keep their policies completely in line with the US in disregard of the basic balance in the South China Sea, it will greatly heighten the tensions. When the situation spirals out of control, they will be left with limited options and end up compromising their own interests. Hence, it is inadvisable and extremely dangerously to blindly play up the tensions in the South China Sea. For the moment, these extraregional countries serve as the final weight. In spite of their general inclination towards the US, they do not intend to cross the bottom line to aggressively provoke China. Once they take things to the extreme, it will fuel the aggressive move of the US and trigger China’s compelling countermeasures, which will throw the situation out of control. Naturally, these countries have reasonable request for unimpeded access to the South China Sea and freedom of navigation, but they also have some illegitimate desires, such as containing China with South China Sea issues. It is definitively unwise for them to pressure China blindly or even resort to increase the show of force when their freedom of navigation and other interests are not compromised.
With China’s maritime rising, these countries are naturally upset. But if we think logically, these worries are unnecessary or overreacting. The inclusiveness and openness of the South China Sea serve China’s overall interests. China is the largest trade power in the world, which highly depends on the world's sea lanes, and most of them are in the range of the US and its allies’ weapons. Even if one day China would have the capacity to control the South China Sea, how could it close the waters of South China Sea regardless the safety of its worldwide SLOCs? If these countries believe that Chinese policymakers are rational, what are the necessity of these concerns about China controlling the South China Sea?
Ⅲ. Small moves of some claimants should be watched closely, and shelving the disputes on the maritime delimitation is especially important.
Driven by their established position, Vietnam and the Philippines are speeding up reclamation and infrastructure construction on islands and reefs they have occupied. It has been reported that the Philippines and Malaysia have even attempted to occupy more uninhabited islands and reefs, which severely violates the DOC. If they cannot exercise self-restraint, their conduct will become a grave threat to the peace and stability of the region. But overall, the status quo of the islands and reefs is relative stable.
While, in the process of COC negotiation and thereafter, disputes over maritime delimitation are likely to intensify. Recently, Vietnam and Malaysia, seemingly inspired by the arbitration award, have expanded their new petroleum and gas exploitation to a wide range of disputed areas. Vietnam's actions in the waters near Vanguard Bank directly triggered a four-month-long maritime confrontation between China and Vietnam. The disputes over resources representing maritime rights, if not handled properly, could trigger more repercussions in the future.
China’s proposal of shelving disputes and exercising restraint is not unconditional. In other words, the parties concerned are expected to make coordinated efforts towards the same goals. If any party misunderstands China’s goodwill and becomes overly aggressive, China may take necessary measures in response. China has proved by recent operations that it is impossible for it to accept the ruling of the arbitration. In China’s perspective, there are many legitimate reasons to reject the Award. Other claimants must face the reality and acknowledge the existence of disputes, otherwise, there are no way out.
Ⅳ. China and ASEAN member states should jointly push for substantial progress in COC negotiations.
If Single Text Consultation in earlier stages was to find the sum, which means the concerns of all parties concerned were brought in the initiative; then the latter stage is more like doing subtraction, because some tradeoff or compromise would inevitably be made as negotiations over substantive terms begin. It affects the vital interests of the parties concerned, so it is conceivable to encounter daunting barriers under tangled circumstances. China said it hopes to complete the talks within three years, but it is merely the country’s expectation and resolution. Whether it can be accomplished in three years depends on whether the intentions of ASEAN countries are on the same page. Even if they are, it is not an easy task to reach consensus on a great deal of sensitive and complicated terms in three years. But if the negotiation fails, it would have a significant impact on the situation in the South China Sea. The relevant parties should eliminate external interference, take the overall situation as the criterion, and give full play to the compromise wisdom of the East.
Ⅴ. Claimants need to forge ahead joint development and maritime pragmatic cooperation steadily.
COC negotiations and maritime pragmatic cooperation are two important tools for China and ASEAN countries to stabilize the situation of the South China Sea. Over the last two years, relevant parties have secured solid progress in cooperation on fisheries, petroleum and gas development and defense. In October 2018, China and the Philippines signed the MOU, which marks a major breakthrough in joint development. In 2019, under the direct promotion of the high-level of the two countries, China-Philippines offshore oil and gas cooperation is progressing smoothly.
However, it remains to be seen whether this cooperation can be widely promoted in other regions. One underlying issue at stake is how to determine or understand disputed areas. Even if the consensus is reached among the parties concerned, the cooperation on oil and gas development and fisheries will not have substantial impact on the final maritime boundary negotiations. Likewise, claimants can hardly ignore the importance of resource exploitation and economic presence in the competition over the waters.
As the cooperation on oil and gas development and fisheries in the South China Sea constantly hits the headlines these days, some think tanks have issued cooperation plans or initiatives with a clear intention of influencing the development of the situation in the South China Sea. Among them, AMTI released a comprehensive and exhaustive roadmap for cooperation in the South China Sea, exploring cooperation on joint crackdown on transnational crimes and joint marine scientific research, fishery management and environmental protection and oil and gas exploitation. The report “seeks practicality and feasibility”. Yet, it has not received any positive response from any party concerned. Reports of the kind are no doubt valuable for theoretical research. In reality, however, joint development and maritime pragmatic cooperation are more likely to experience a lot of trial and error, and such roadmaps are merely empty talk to a large extent. For many issues, including fishery frictions, China is not at the centrality of the disputes. Instead, ASEAN member states face more acute conflicts among themselves. Considering that the fishery resources are especially mobile, coastal states of the South China Sea are expected to foster a multilateral fishery cooperation mechanism to regulate fishery production and strengthen resource conservation in the region. “Given current realities in the SCS, the main focus should be on promoting scientific cooperation around fishery management, not politicization”. Cooperation on oil and gas development can be more sensitive, as the parties concerned are faced with different conditions. Thus, preferable way is to push for the cooperation steadily with bilateral participation.
Hu Bo, Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University. Besides, he is in charge of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). He received his PhD in Politics from the School of International Studies at Peking University and has extensive experience in policy analysis and consulting. His areas of specialization include maritime strategy, international security, and Chinese diplomacy. He has written three books and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters on topics related to China’s maritime strategy and policy. His most recent books published are as follows: China’s Maritime Power in 2049 (Beijing, China Development Press, 2015); China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era (Beijing, Ocean Press, 2018); and Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2019).