Crowded Waters: The South China Sea's Next Big Flashpoint?

February 4, 2015 Topic: DefenseForeign PolicySecurity Region: South China Sea

Crowded Waters: The South China Sea's Next Big Flashpoint?

U.S. policy makers should recognize that the next crisis in the South China Sea could inadvertently start in the waters between a fishing trawler and a zealous coast-guard cutter.

What’s the upshot of these trends? As inshore stocks thin, fishermen are driven to fight each other for the waning catch found in the midst of a live geopolitical dispute. And where fishermen go, coast guards are bound to follow. Accordingly, the region has seen mounting friction between the fishing fleets and coast guards of the South China Sea claimants.


Capabilities have largely tracked ambitions. Over the last decade, fishing and coast-guard fleets have ballooned in size and power, making it easier than ever before to reach disputed portions of the South China Sea. For example, Bill Hayton reports that the Philippines had a little over half a million registered fishing operators in 1980. Two decades later, that number had more than tripled. Likewise, Zhang points out, “between 2004 to 2012, while the total number of fishing vessels in China decreased by 12 percent, the average horsepower and tonnage rose by 22 percent and 33 percent, respectively.”

The claimants have enabled combustible interactions through indirect means as well. In the last several months, for instance, China has ramped up a series of land-reclamation projects on several islands in the South China Sea, with the ultimate goal of an airstrip in both the Paracel and Spratly island chains. Unsurprisingly, these reclamation projects have raised the ire of China’s neighbors. But in the long run, the projects may also fuel conflict by augmenting China’s power-projection capabilities. Once the airstrips are operational, China will run air patrols over disputed areas more often and farther out than before. And by improving its maritime domain awareness, Beijing will be able to more effectively intercept other nation’s vessels, leading to additional incendiary encounters.

Take another example. Two years ago, Beijing passed legislation to integrate four previously independent maritime law-enforcement agencies into a new China Coast Guard, part of a broader trend toward centralization. From one perspective, this ongoing consolidation promises to decrease the likelihood of a regional spat. After all, Beijing will tame its motley group of maritime “dragons” by subjecting them to a single chain of command. This discipline will enhance both predictability and accountability, making it easier for China to avoid any clashes with the other vessels plying the South China Sea’s waters.

But the news is not all good from the perspective of regional stability. First, Beijing moved to consolidate in part because its agencies used to pursue their functions in an incoherent and often-duplicative manner. By streamlining its organizational chart, China hopes to eliminate redundancy in its maritime law-enforcement activities. These efficiency gains will allow the China Coast Guard to cover more ground with the same amount of forces, thereby amplifying China’s presence in the Sea’s disputed areas and boosting the chances for confrontation with foreign fishing fleets and coast guards.

Second, and relatedly, China will be able to pursue its existing strategy—including what many see as “salami-slicing” tactics—with greater focus and efficacy. These policies court danger by helping China take incremental control of the Sea, even though they are designed to avoid open conflict. In other words, greater discipline over the coast guard may have a paradoxical effect: precisely because Beijing knows that an unintended conflict is less likely—and that, therefore, it can get away with more—China may be willing to push the envelope further with an increasingly assertive set of tactics.

A Trend Hard to Freeze

As the quantity of actors proliferates, their web of interactions becomes denser as well. And each interaction has the potential to spark a violent confrontation that spirals out of control.

That’s why Washington’s latest proposal—calling for a “freeze” in the South China Sea—is unlikely to do much to mitigate the chance of conflict. Although the contours of the initiative remain hazy, the United States has suggested in general terms that claimants cease land reclamation, building activities, occupation of uninhabited features and other behavior that might escalate regional tensions by altering the status quo.

If taken up, this “freeze” proposal would have several benefits. Most significantly, it would eliminate problematic activities like China’s reclamation projects, as well as lower temperatures more broadly across the region. Policy makers would have additional diplomatic space to negotiate a peaceful solution in the event of a crisis.

But by focusing primarily on the South China Sea’s islands, Washington is missing the real story offshore: the disputants are no longer primarily feuding over land features, but are instead muscling—both intentionally and not—for control of the waters surrounding them. A “freeze” does little to halt the mounting pace of interactions between patriotic fishermen and hair-trigger coast guards, and those encounters run the biggest risk of triggering violence in the future.

In an ideal world, Washington would pair a broadly focused “freeze” initiative with a real drive toward developing a common regional understanding of how to handle low-level encounters in disputed areas. But with even the “freeze” proposal dead in the water, don’t hold your breath: without leadership from the claimants themselves, it will seemingly be a long time before calm waters return to the South China Sea.

Sean Mirski is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Supreme Court Chair of the Harvard Law Review.

Image: Flickr/yvescosentino/CC by 2.0