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Analysis of the Current Situation in the South China Sea and Evolution under the Biden administration

2020-12-16 09:18:10       source:NISCSS

Analysis of the Current Situation in the South China Sea and Evolution under the Biden administration


Remarks at the China-U.S. Track II Dialogue on Maritime Affairs & Internatioanl Law


Wu Shicun

December 16, 2020



Current Situation in the South China Sea and the Outlook for 2021

The current situation in the South China Sea can be described as a lull after the storm. The United State has slowed down its military operations there given the controversy in the presidential election, the transitional period afterwards, and the unpredictability of the U.S. foreign policy in the future. Other claimant countries are not so reckless as to take unilateral actions to infringe China’s rights and trigger backlash from China, as they are uncertain about the Biden administration's South China Sea policy and the interaction between the U.S. and China—confrontational or peaceful—in the South China Sea in the future.

After a turbulent period in 2020, the situation in the South China Sea in 2021 will be characterized by the following features: First, competition in the judicial and rules-making field will take over military confrontation as a new trend in the evolution in the South China Sea. For the United States, the Biden administration, on the basis of the 2016 arbitral award, will deny China’s rights and claims to the South China Sea and take actions against China’s efforts in this regard. For other claimants, as the window is narrowing for the COC consultations, they are seeking to maximize their interests in the South China Sea and try to have their interests confirmed and consolidated by the COC.

Second, countries outside this region will remarkably increase their military presence and operations in the South China Sea. In addition to Japan and Australia, the United Kingdom and France will join the U.S. military operations in the South China Sea. They may jointly conduct military operations against China, such as “joint patrols” or “joint freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs).

Third, compared with 2020, other claimants will notably increase their unilateral actions to consolidate their vested interests in 2021. Vietnam will increase its illegal fishing in the waters of China’s Xisha Islands and oil and gas exploration in the waters of the Nansha Islands. The Philippines, based on the arbitral ruling, will mainly solidify its illegal claims through domestic legislation, law enforcement, military activities and delay in joint development. Malaysia will become more active and assertive in pushing for the deliberation by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on its submission, in developing oil and gas resources in the Nankang Ansha, and in exerting its control over Qiaongtai Jiao.

Fourth, the COC consultations will run into unexpected difficulties. The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia surely want the window to be extended before the conclusion of the COC negotiations; China and some ASEAN countries have differences on some core clauses; some extra-regional countries may disrupt the consultation process; and the arbitral award and the CLCS submission will also have a negative effect. All this will make it difficult for the stakeholders to reach consensus on the COC.

Fifth, incidents on the sea will be triggered by more intensified military and paramilitary activities in the South China Sea. This will make it more necessary and urgent than ever to develop a crisis management mechanism covering countries inside and outside this region as well as both military and paramilitary activities.


Potential Adjustment to the U.S. South China Sea Policy under the Biden Administration and its Impact

In the early days of the Biden administration, it is expected that there will be no major adjustments to U.S. South China Sea policy. China and the United States will continue their current momentum of confrontation in the South China Sea. However, with the resumption or establishment of dialogue and communication mechanisms between the two governments, a relationship of “coopetition” between the two countries will emerge, featuring dialogues focused on crisis management; confrontation, particularly legal struggle; and competition on maritime power with the aim to expand military presence.

In terms of U.S. relations with other littoral states in the South China Sea, the United States will put its South China Sea security strategy again under its framework for Asia-Pacific security strategy. At the same time, it will step up military alliance with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. This, to some extent, will change China’s relatively favorable strategic posture after its construction and facility deployment on its islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The Biden administration will force the Philippines to choose sides between China and the United States by leveraging Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and raising the arbitral award again. Vietnam will go further on issues such as the U.S. use of Vietnamese military bases and Vietnamese-U.S. security cooperation, oil and gas development in disputed areas, and the threat to lodge its own arbitration case against China as the United States will continue its high-pressure policy toward China in the South China Sea. With the U.S. covert support, Malaysia will push for the deliberation in the CLCS on its submission and speed up oil and gas development in the Nankang Ansha. In the COC consultations, out of its strategic needs after its return to multilateralism, the United States will set up new barriers to this rules-making process for the South China Sea led by China, or create troubles by its “proxies” in ASEAN in order to bring this process to a standstill.