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Several Characteristics of the Current Situation in the South China Sea

2019-10-23 17:55:27       source:NISCSS

 Speech at the “Ocean Security Situation Panel of the 2019 Beijing Xiangshan Forum”

Beijing, October 21, 2019

Since the beginning of this year, many positive and favorable factors have emerged in the development of the South China Sea situation. The bilateral relations between China and ASEAN, as well as between China and all claimant States are relatively good in general; the textual consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) have been proceeding in an orderly manner; the Sino-Philippines bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea issue has operated smoothly, and positive achievements have been continuously made in their consultations on joint development and cooperation.

However, it must be noted that the overall situation in the South China Sea has entered a turbulent period and is even facing a reversal despite current trends of cooling down.

First, the military contest between China and the United States in the South China Sea has increased and become more intense, and the risk of conflict therein has risen.

Since 2017, the Trump administration of the United States has continuously strengthened the frontier deployment and infiltration of the US armed forces in the South China Sea through various means such as independent operations, tempting and wooing its allied partners and coordinated participation of these and other friendly forces. At present, the military presence of the United States in the South China Sea is represented by a trinity of forces in the air, on the sea and under the water, and a coordinated operation of military forces and quasi-military forces.

(1) The US military has significantly increased its frequency, scope and intensity of operations in the South China Sea region. Since Trump took office, the US military has conducted the so-called "Freedom of Navigation" operations 15 times in the South China Sea. In this year alone, the US has dispatched one or two destroyers to the territory seas or the adjacent waters of China’s Xisha, Nansha, and Zhongsha Islands (Huangyan Dao) 6 times without the permission of the Chinese government.

In addition to the so-called "Freedom of Navigation" operations, the US military's underwater forces and airpower have also frequently made close reconnaissance against China in the South China Sea. According to incomplete statistics, the B-52 bomber deployed by the US military in Guam flew to the Vietnamese Sea at least 16 times last year to carry out military missions, which was about four times the frequency of that in 2017.

It is worth noting that the "dual-warship" cruise and "dual-warplane" overflight have gradually become a norm of American operations in the region. Of the so-called 6 "Freedom of Navigation" operations this year, the US military adopted dual-warship cruise mode twice, and operated in the adjacent waters of China’s two islands and reefs three times.

(2) The US military has, in a high-profile manner, dispatched its quasi-military forces to participate in the military missions in the South China Sea. Since 2019, US Coast Guard vessels have passed through the Taiwan Strait in a high-profile way, entered the South China Sea, and conducted joint exercises or training with the countries surrounding the South China Sea such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. Among them, the most recent public exercise of the US-Philippines Coast Guard in the South China Sea was conducted in the adjacent waters of Huangyan Dao, over which both China and the Philippines claim jurisdiction. The presence and activities of the US Coast Guard in the South China Sea will gradually become a norm.

(3) The US military has provided the countries bordering the South China Sea with military equipment in order to strengthen its military exchanges and cooperation with them, and which has become a major means for the US to intervene in the South China Sea affairs. The US has provided the Vietnamese Coast Guard with patrol boats for three consecutive years. In September this year, the US held joint military exercise with the 10 ASEAN Member States in the Gulf of Thailand for the first time in history, indicating that its military cooperation and interaction with the countries surrounding the South China Sea have changed from a bilateral mode to a multilateral one.

Second, the US has been followed by its allies who have intervened in the South China Sea issue by military means and made such intervention a norm.

Both the UK and France have announced in a high-profile manner that they would dispatch aircraft carrier battle groups to the South China Sea for cruising. In August this year, the UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement on the South China Sea issue. The EU also issued a similar statement, alleging the emergence of "tensions" in the South China Sea and reiterating the Award of the South China Sea arbitration case initiated by the Philippine against China, in order to put pressure on China. Since 2017, Japan has, for three consecutive years, dispatched its Izumo-class and JS Kaga helicopter aircraft carriers and at least six frigates to the South China Sea to conduct activities and to hold joint military exercises with the US, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia and India in the South China Sea and surrounding waters. Australia also dispatched its warships to "pass through" the South China Sea twice in May this year.

Third, some claimant States have intensified their unilateral actions with regard to islands and reefs construction, maritime zones control and resource development.

Vietnam has increased its infringements upon oil and gas reserves in the region. In mid-May this year, Vietnam unilaterally launched oil and gas drilling operations in the waters of Wan’an Tan claimed by China (known as the 06-1 block by Vietnam). This was the third time that Vietnam has unilaterally conducted activities for the exploration and development of oil and gas in the adjacent waters of Wan'an Tan since 2017. In addition, in response to the exploration activities conducted by China’s “HD-8” in the waters around Riji Jiao, Vietnam shadowed and interfered with Chinese vessels.

In addition, according to a report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in April this year, Vietnam has engaged in land reclamation activities and military facilities upgrading on several islands and reefs it occupies in the Nansha Islands since 2017. In particular, it created a land area of more than 40 acres around Nanwei Dao (Spratly Island) and built a runway and a large hangar for maritime reconnaissance aircraft, tactical transport aircraft and other weapons and equipment to be parked and landed.

Fourth, the construction of marine safety mechanisms and rules in the South China Sea is still beset with difficulties. In 2013, China and the 10 ASEAN Member States launched the consultations of the COC, beginning to explore the construction of a more effective mechanism for maritime crisis management and control, and political and security mutual trust enhancement. Last year, China and the 10 ASEAN Member States reached a consensus on the single draft negotiating text of the COC. This year, the first round of review of the text has been completed. However, after the curtain on the formal negotiating text has been raised, the contradictions and differences between the Parties concerned will inevitably appear. Therefore, there still are, and will remain, many uncertainties and challenges for them to transform the consultations of the COC into an opportunity to construct the rules of maritime conduct and establish a maritime safety cooperation mechanism.

Fifth, there have been difficulties in taking steps forward for marine security cooperation. Relevant party States such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have focused on maximizing their own interests, which has not only further aggravated the contradictions between the disputed countries’ claims for jurisdiction over the waters and resource development therein, but also made it more difficult to push forward the process of maritime security cooperation. China and the 10 ASEAN Member States have clarified in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed in 2002 that pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes, the Parties concerned should explore or undertake cooperative activities in the fields of "safety of navigation and communication at sea", "search and rescue operation" and "combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms". However, no substantial progress has been made in such cooperation up to the present. In contrast, some countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines have shown a tendency to cooperate with countries outside the region such as the United States, Japan, and Australia to conduct security cooperation, such as holding mutual military exchanges, opening military bases for the latter’s use, holding joint maritime exercises in the undisputed or disputed waters, and training personnel.

Sixth, the negative impact of the South China Sea arbitration case initiated by the Philippines against China on the maritime security situation has been gradually fermented. Although the Duterte administration of the Philippines intends to downplay the Arbitral Award, the domestic opposition forces in the Philippine have always insisted that the Award is binding on China and requested President Duterte to address the dispute between China and the Philippines on the basis of the Award. Other claimant States have also used the Arbitral Award as the basis of their unilateral maritime actions. In particular, Vietnam recently used the Award to make a defense of its unilateral oil and gas drilling operations in the adjacent waters of Wan'an Tan, and issued a signal that it had in mind to emulate the Philippines by submitting the Sino-Vietnamese disputes in the South China Sea to an international court or arbitral tribunal for compulsory settlement. In fact, the relevant military operations conducted by some countries outside the the South China Sea region are closely related to the Award. Therefore, the Arbitral Award has increasingly shown its destructive influence on peace, stability and order in the South China Sea. This is one of the major challenges for the current maritime security situation in the South China Sea.