A Dangerous Showdown in the South China Sea

The plot thickens. 

Far from ameliorating territorial disputes in the Western Pacific, President Obama’s latest trip to Asia seems to have instead ushered in a new era of Chinese assertiveness across adjacent waters. In the absence of an unequivocal American commitment to come to the rescue of regional allies such as the Philippines if a war were to erupt over disputed features in the South China Sea, China has been encouraged to accelerate its age-old strategy of building facts on the ground.

In recent months, China has dispatched several oil rigs to contested areas across the South China Sea, with Vietnam as the primary target, while stepping up its reclamation activities in the Spratly chain of islands, with the Philippines as the primary victim. China has eagerly displayed its technological prowess by creating artificial islands and deploying state-of-the-art drilling rigs across the area.

By transforming rudimentary features (e.g., reefs) into islands, which can support human life and reflect Beijing’s effective exercise of sovereignty, China aims to (indirectly) justify its notorious “nine-dash-line” doctrine by projecting additional 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from the largest features under its control. This way, China would be able to (theoretically) argue that even based on modern international law it has legitimate claims across the South China Sea.

Moreover, ongoing construction activities allow China to more effectively project military power across the area. The prospective establishment of military garrisons and airstrips over artificially-enhanced features would place China in a credible position to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), which, in turn, demands a network of nearby bases (and aircraft carriers) to support sustained aerial operations across the South China Sea.

In addition, China has also become less shy with revealing the full extent of its territorial ambition across the South China Sea. In late-June, Beijing unveiled a new official map, which is unprecedented in how it unabashedly reflects China’s maximalist interpretation of its historical claims across adjacent waters. Dispensing with any form of (cartographic) subtlety, the map unambiguously places equal emphasis on both land-based and maritime territorial claims of China. Unlike the older maps, which reflected Beijing’s (then) studied territorial ambiguity, the new map portrays contested features in the South China Sea as an integral part of China’s territorial limits.

China’s New Assertiveness

It is increasingly clear that China seeks de-facto—​if not de jure—​dominance over adjacent waters and it has employed more coercive measures to corner neighbouring states such as Vietnam and the Philippines. No wonder, even the perennially-neutral Singapore has begun to speak out against China, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong decrying the emerging “might is right” dynamics in the South China Sea, and calling for the resolution of the disputes in accordance to international law.

Despite China’s late-2013 agreement to proceed with more concrete negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the guidelines of a proposed Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, this year has instead  only seen largely fruitless exchanges over the CoC, which is essentially a non-binding, declaratory statement.

The perceptible regression vis-à-vis the negotiation of a CoC has revealed the stubborn superfluity of existing regional multilateral platforms.  Given China’s overwhelming influence over certain members of ASEAN, particularly Laos and Cambodia, consensus-driven negotiations over a robust regional maritime regime are unlikely to bear fruit anytime soon. So far, founding ASEAN members such as Indonesia—Southeast Asia’s informal leader—have expended their diplomatic capital on preventing China-friendly members from sabotaging efforts to “socialize” China into accepting regional principles on peaceful, rule-based resolution of territorial disputes.