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2015-01-09 10:39:42       source:NISCSS


Mark J. Valencia

Adjunct Senior Scholar

National Institute for South China Sea Studies

Haikou, China


Last year was not a good year for international relations regarding the South China Sea. Incidents included China’s intercept of a US Poseiden subhunter; the China-Philippines face off at Second Thomas Shoal; Philippine arrests of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters; the China-Vietnam clash over China’s drilling in Vietnam’s claimed waters;  the Philippines submission of a memorial seeking a ruling on China’s “nine dash line” from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague; and the release of dueling position papers on the claim and complaint by China, Vietnam and the U.S. These incidents raised tensions and stimulated considerable political maneuvering by all concerned both on the international stage and behind the scenes. Indeed conflicting interests in the South China Sea became the primary security issue complex in Southeast Asia and within ASEAN. This year is not likely to be much better-- and could be worse.

Flux is integral to international relations and that describes the political situation in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. China – which aspires to be the dominant power in the region- would like to build a positive relationship not only with its neighbors and fellow claimants but also with the United States which currently dominates the region. The tone and tenor of the China-US relationship clearly affects the political climate there. However it is not at all clear that China and the U.S. are willing or able to make the political compromises that a peaceful coexistence will require—let alone a relationship in which cooperation outpaces competition.  In China’s view, the U.S. basically wants to continue and strengthen the status quo, that is to maintain and enhance its Cold War hub and spoke alliance system and forward - deployed presence. With the U.S. ‘rebalancing’ to Asia the South China Sea is becoming a cockpit of China-US rivalry for dominance in the region.  Avoiding conflict will require a change of attitude on both sides—something that domestic nationalists are unlikely to accept.

In particular, despite their November 2014 MOU regarding ‘rules of behavior’ for unplanned military air and ship encounters, more incidents are likely.  The problem is that these ‘encounters’ are not unplanned but purposeful probes and corresponding intercepts designed to send a message.   China will continue to challenge US naval intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance vessels and aircraft like the Poseidons, the Impeccable and the Bowditch as well as drones operating on, under and over China’s ‘near seas’.

 The U.S. believes China is developing an ‘anti-access/area denial’ strategy that is designed to control China’s near seas and prevent access to them by the U.S. in the event of a conflict — say between China and Taiwan. This strategy requires Chinese dominance of command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR). The U.S. response is the air-sea battle concept, which depends on crippling China’s C4 ISR. This means that C4 ISR is the “tip of the spear” for both sides, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China’s near seas. Thus attempts to negotiate a preventative regime are unlikely to make much progress in theory and especially in implementation.

There will also likely be little progress in negotiating a robust Code of Conduct (COC) between ASEAN and China. China believes that other claimants are violating the non-binding Declaration on Conduct by not negotiating the issues directly with it and instead “internationalizing” them.  Until they do so, China is unlikely to yield any ground. It is possible that for public relations purposes a milquetoast COC will be agreed. But it is unlikely to make any difference at sea. Further complicating matters, India and Japan will also continue to make their interests and presence in the region apparent.

The arbitration panel hearing the Philippines complaint against China may render a verdict this year--at least on whether or not it has jurisdiction to hear the case. If it decides it does or decides against China on the merits, tensions will rise as China will continue to officially ignore the process and the result and increase pressure on the Philippines and Vietnam to negotiate with it directly. Regardless of the outcome, the Philippines and Vietnam will continue to appeal for ASEAN and its members support vis a vis their challenges to China’s claims and actions, and the U.S. will continue its tacit support for their position. But Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar will probably continue to demur on the matter. Indonesia may begin to exercise some leadership within ASEAN and attempt to bridge the gaps between ASEAN and China.  It will be interesting to see how Malaysia – not exactly a neutral party – will ‘lead’ ASEAN on this issue as the ASEAN chair for 2015. Intra-ASEAN maritime disputes will remain unresolved and could even resurface as stresses and strains undermine ASEAN unity.

In short, 2015 is likely to bring more of the same for the South China Sea: isolated but potentially serious incidents, political wrangling and megaphone diplomacy. There may be an acceleration of the evolution of pro-US and pro-China factions both within ASEAN and within individual member countries like Vietnam.  Certainly China and the U.S. will continue to enhance their economic, political, and military presence in the region and their rivalry will spill over into regional politics.


In the longer term there are several ways the South China Sea political imbroglio could ultimately unfold.  In perhaps a worst scenario from an ASEAN perspective, the US-China rivalry will feed upon itself, exacerbated by domestic nationalists in both countries but particularly in the U.S. in the run-up to the 2016 elections. This rivalry could become a serious ideological and political struggle dominating the issues, splitting ASEAN on this issue and subordinating its ‘centrality’ in security. The South China Sea disputes would fester and tensions would wax and wane in action/reaction dynamics.  Proxy domestic and interstate conflict would become the new ‘normal’.  International oil companies would shy away from the disputed areas and exploration would remain in limbo.

An ASEAN preferred scenario would be one in which a robust binding COC between ASEAN and China is agreed and implemented.  This would diminish one opportunity for US-China conflict and reaffirm ASEAN political competence and centrality in regional security.  The U.S. and other powers active in the region would accede to the Code.  Not only could this lead to an era of peace and stability in the South China Sea but the claimants could find a way to encourage hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in the disputed areas – perhaps through joint development

Neither of these scenarios are likely and the reality will be somewhere in between these extremes.  The disputes can be managed -- particularly if Indonesia becomes the principle broker –but probably not resolved. ASEAN - which takes no position in the disputes - and its members can try to ensure the reality is closer to the preferred scenario than the worst scenario by trying to manage the US-China rivalry without blatantly siding with either protagonist.  This will not be easy but it may be key to preserving ASEAN unity on this issue. In any case, the South China Sea situation will continue to require the close attention of policy makers and analysts in 2015.