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South China Sea: Prospects in 2018

2018-01-17 11:08:26       source:NISCSS

This is a speech of President Wu Shicun at the 6th U.S.-China Track II Dialogue on Maritime Affairs & International Law, which was held on 16-17 January 2018 in Sanya, Hainan, China. This dialogue is co-organized by NISCSS, Institute for China-America Studies, and National Committee on United States-China Relations of the US.


President Orlins,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning!


With 2017, a year of relative stability and peace having gone by, 2018 may well see rising tensions sporadically and occasionally in the South China Sea. Issues that could contribute to such situations are as follows: first, with the negotiation and consultation of the COC text slated to formally start in early-2018, 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 will probably again hype-up China’s “militarization of the South China Sea” as China resumes facility deployments on the Spratlys features. Third, the U.S.-Japan military alliance will loom 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 rollout of its newly-declared “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 2018, the possibility of intermittent rising tensions and compartmentalized turmoil will remain high as a result of increasing uncertainties. The following five aspects will feature prominently during this coming year.


First, China-U.S. competition in the South China Sea, evidenced by military competition and even perhaps confrontation, will remain a key factor influencing the regional security situation. China-U.S. competition over dominance in the Western Pacific region, including the South China Sea, will inevitably lead to continuous efforts by the US to strengthen its military cooperation with littoral countries of the South China Sea so as to balance against China’s rising naval prowess. The U.S. will also conduct more frequent and provocative freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) and close-in reconnaissance, either by itself or in conjunction with allies such as Japan. This has been compounded by the White House’s decision during the first half of 2017 to delegate the decision-making power on FONOPs to its military commanders. The U.S. navy, with presidential authorization, will probably exercise freedom of navigation more frequently in the South China Sea in 2018. Meanwhile, due to its significantly enhanced maritime power and its gradually advancing facility deployments on some of its South China Sea islands, China will enjoy more diverse resources and will be able to command more effective counter-measures against the US’ military activities in these waters. Based on the observations above, it is safe to conclude that China-U.S. military competition will continue to be one of the main factors driving the development of the South China Sea situation.


Second, as key military allies of the U.S. with a penchant for intervening in the region’s affairs, Japan and Australia will continue to play an unsettling role which will impact the development of the South China Sea situation in 2018. The Abe government in Japan has become a persistent factor in stirring up the South China Sea situation and affecting its development. Tokyo’s numerous such moves, such as its Maritime Self-Defense Force’s entry into the South China Sea, its bilateral cooperation, primarily military, with the other claimant states in the South China Sea, and its attempt to include South China Sea issues in joint statements on as many multilateral occasions as possible, are deliberately intended to stir the situation. It appears that Japan is taking advantage of the South China Sea issue as an opportunity to promote the revision of its pacifist constitution, pursue the goal of once-again becoming a military power, balance against China’s rapid rise and development, and disrupt China-ASEAN relations.


In 2018, Japan is likely to further interfere in the security and politics of the South China Sea  through such means as port visits, joint military drills focusing on non-traditional security issues such as humanitarian aid, provision of military and law-enforcement equipment to littoral states so as to normalize the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF) presence in the South China Sea, as well as by pushing for anti-China language in joint statements on South China Sea issues via multilateral mechanisms. Meanwhile, it will also keep hyping-up sensitive issues such as China’s facility deployments, its maritime militia, and its Air Defense Identification Zone so as to fabricate a pretext for its military presence in the South China Sea and its interference with relevant issues. It has also been mulling moves to remodel its largest-class destroyer, which was deployed on a three-month tour through the South China Sea in 2017 and currently serves a helicopter-carrier, into a full-fledged aircraft carrier with F-35B fighter jets on board.


For its part, Australia has not been shy to interfere in the South China Sea issue either, and its interference has been quite high-profile too – although mainly through diplomatic and political means. For example, in his address to the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked China to maintain the so-called “rule of law” and called for the preservation of the “rules-based order”. At the ARF Foreign Ministers' Meetings in 2016 and 2017, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop joined the chorus of the U.S. and Japan in calling on China to abide by the decision of the arbitral tribunal. This insistent and peremptory demand was repeated again in its newly-released Foreign Policy White Paper this past-December. Australia, along with Japan, is also an avid supporter of the recent U.S. “Indo-Pacific Strategy” which is apparently intended to encircle and contain China.


Third, the “militarization” of some islands and reefs, competition over maritime space, unilateral resource development by some claimant state in disputed waters, and the “validity” of the arbitral award will continue to dominate the agenda between China and other claimant states regarding the South China Sea issue. The South China Sea dispute, in its essence, is about competing territorial sovereignty claims over relevant islands and reefs, and overlapping jurisdiction over relevant maritime space. Yet, with the internationalization of the South China Sea issue, the dispute has expanded to involve competition over geo-political interests and the (re)making of regional rules and order. From China’s perspective, the four issues that I have just highlighted, along with the COC consultations, especially regarding the nature of the COC - that is to say whether and in what way the COC will be a legally binding mechanism, will be key challenges that China will need to tackle properly in 2018 and also for an extended period of time, going forward.


Fourth, from China’s perspective, Vietnam is mostly likely to become the U.S. and Japan’s regional “agent” to stir up the South China Sea situation. Without a local “troublemaker” on whose behalf it can claim to be intervening to uphold the stability of the South China Sea, the U.S. and Japan have few tools at their disposal to assert their relevance and authority in this body of water - other than endlessly navigate its length and breadth. The current Philippines administration too is under great pressure to overturn its current South China Sea policies. Both of these two countries are likely to undermine China’s efforts in stabilizing the South China Sea. With regard to Vietnam, it has shown signs of moderating its policy toward China and the South China Sea following the improvement of China-Philippine relations since the second half of 2016. It nevertheless continues to stir up trouble in this region by strengthening cooperation and coordination with the U.S. and Japan on South China Sea issues as well as create a favorable external environment for its own attempts to accelerate land reclamation. This is a tactic known in ancient Chinese military wisdom as ‘feigning action in one place while making the real move in another.’ Secondly, Vietnam has taken advantage of opportunities provided by China’s commitment to the COC negotiation process with ASEAN countries as well as China’s self-imposed restraint on island development to carry out unilateral oil and gas exploitation in the disputed areas of the Nansha islands. Vietnam has done so with the intention to make this an established fact and thereby pocket greater gains during the COC consultation phase.


As to the Philippines, for the past year since the so-called “arbitral award” was rendered, it has moved rapidly to improve its relations with China, and bilateral relations have resumed to a completely normal state. The two countries have established an inter-governmental consultation and negotiation mechanism to manage the South China Sea disputes, while bilateral cooperation with regard to law-enforcement mechanisms and fisheries have also made significant progress. However, the improvement of China-Philippine relations and Duterte’s downgrading and abeyance of the arbitral decision has met with great resentment and resistance within sections of the Filipino political establishment who are keen to tarnish his outreach to China. There have been constant calls for Duterte to resist China’s economic “lure” and insist on the validity of the award. Meanwhile, the support of the US and Japan behind the opposition forces against Duterte’s South China Sea policy should not be overlooked. Therefore, despite the continued improvement of bilateral relations, the consultations independent of the arbitral award, and the promotion of bilateral maritime cooperation, China-Philippine relations will not necessarily be smooth sailing in 2018.


Fifth, the negative impact of the “arbitral award” on China’s efforts to secure its rights in the South China Sea, promote maritime cooperation, and advance negotiation and consultation of the COC text will be increasingly felt. This impact will be wide-ranging, profound and lasting, and may become prominent under certain circumstances. The Philippine government has so far put aside the “arbitral award”. Nevertheless, we cannot eliminate the possibility of the arbitration case being raised again in the future as the political atmosphere in the Philippines shifts. Other claimant states potentially “benefiting” from the “award” may make use of it, too, to infringe on China’s rights and interests. Countries outside the region such as the U.S., Japan, and Australia will not sit by idly seeing the “award” turn into a useless piece of paper. The forces from both within and outside the region that are intent on disturbing the relative stability and peace in the South China Sea and have joined together to “solidify” and “enforce” the award on the diplomatic, legal and maritime fronts, will continue to exist as a pressing challenge for China. In particular, as China continues with the development of some of its South China Sea islands and reefs, promote maritime cooperation, and engage deeply in negotiations on the COC’s text, issues such as the legal status of the developed features, scope of the “disputed areas”, definition of “historic rights”, legal implications of the DOC, and whether judicial processes should be prioritized for resolving the South China Sea disputes, will rise to the fore and become the focal points of contention.


Thank you for your attention. And I welcome your questions and comments.