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Can the South China Sea Return to Stability in 2021?

2021-01-18 15:22:24       source:World Affairs

The year 2020 witnessed the shift in the South China Sea situation from stability to disorder. COVID-19 did not slow down the pace of the United States, other extra-regional powers and some littoral states from making waves in the South China Sea. Looking ahead, sustained confrontation between China and the United States, as well as accident-prone disputes over maritime interests between claimant countries, does not make one optimistic about the shift from disorder to order in the South China Sea.


The Eventful Year of 2020

As a result of intertwining internal and external factors, the South China Sea situation, though kept under relative control in general, has gradually moved from stability to disorder in 2020, with increased chances of getting out of control in certain areas. Given the return of Cold War thinking and the strategic great-power competition in the Trump administration, the United States has made the South China Sea issue a major tool to contain China's rise in an all-around way, especially its maritime power. The United States has taken a number of major steps, from Secretary of State Pompeo's July 13 South China Sea policy statement to the inclusion of 24 Chinese companies to the entity list for “helping build military islands in the South China Sea” in August.


Generally speaking, the situation in the South China Sea in 2020 has the following four features:

First, the “militarization” of the South China Sea, spearheaded by the United States and joined by other extra-regional countries, has intensified. These countries took multiple military actions with diverse means and in greater scope. The United States did not relax its military efforts to maintain its hegemony in the Western Pacific, and continued to show its muscle to China in the South China Sea, by ship voyages, military aircraft flights and over-flights, drills and exercises, and “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs). According to publicly available statistics, in 2020, U.S. ships conducted eight FONOPs in the waters adjacent to China's Xisha Islands, Huangyan Island and some islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands. In the first 10 months of 2020, the U.S. military aircraft conducted more than 4,000 sorties and military ships 80 voyages to the South China Sea. Additionally, some U.S. military aircraft and ships in reconnaissance operations were as close as 50 nautical miles to the coastline of China’s mainland. In 2020, the U.S. military held more than 11 military exercises in the South China Sea, either alone or along with other countries. Major combat ships and aircraft, including three aircraft carriers, were involved, including two “dual carrier” exercises in sensitive waters in the South China Sea. The U.S. military also rented aircraft from commercial companies and used electronic codes of civil aviation companies from other countries to carry out military operations targeted at China. Japan, Australia and other extra-regional countries have participated in U.S.-led joint military exercises and expanded their military presence in the region on a regular basis.

Second, the negative effects of the South China Sea arbitration ruling were revived and a new round of legal struggle is about to break out. Over the past year, in the name of “upholding and respecting international law”, a number of countries in and out of the region have taken great pains to invoke the South China Sea arbitration ruling in an attempt to deny China's claims and give a veneer of “legitimacy” to their unilateral actions which undermined the claims of others. In the battle of diplomatic notes triggered by Malaysia's submission on the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines in the South China Sea in December 2019, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia have submitted notes to the UN Secretary-General or issued statements for 11 times, all of which based their main arguments on the arbitration ruling. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, under domestic pressure, claimed in the general debate of the 75th session of the General Assembly in September 2020 that "the award is now part of international law". The United States, Australia, Britain, France and Germany also pointed the finger at China on the UN podium. Vietnam is biding its time and preparing to file a new international arbitration or judicial action in its disputes with China regarding the South China Sea. It has put together a team of lawyers from the United States and Europe for the possibility of “lawfare”.

Third, consultations on the “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” (COC) found difficulty in moving forward due to force majeure and external interference. The second reading of the single text scheduled to be held in 2020, and the third reading which should have been launched, were postponed owing to COVID-19. Some claimant countries sped up their unilateral actions against the spirit of the COC consultations in the “window” period before the conclusion of the COC consultations. The United States and some other extra-regional countries interfered with the consultations, sending increasingly clear signals to disrupt the process. In July 2020, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell declared that the COC consultations threatened U.S. interests in the South China Sea and that the United States did not accept China's bullying on ASEAN countries to accept non-reciprocal provisions and to use this process to give legitimacy to China’s claims and even ”militarize” its claims.

Fourth, U.S.-Vietnamese interactions in the South China Sea carry clear strategic intentions aimed at China. In the past year, Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Advisor O'Brien and other senior officials visited Vietnam.The United States and Vietnam held several rounds of secret talks on making port facilities available to the United States, upgrading the Vietnamese naval and coast guard forces, sharing information and intelligence, and coordinating maritime operations. As reciprocity, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said at the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in September 2020 that “the United States is welcome to assist ASEAN countries in the South China Sea and make prompt and constructive contributions to the maintenance of regional peace, stability and development. "


Domestic Political Changes in the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines and the South China Sea

In 2021, the international political and economic landscape will evolve at a faster pace under the shadow of COVID-19. When the COC consultations enters its final stages, political leadership will change in the United States and some coastal countries to the South China Sea. Vietnam will have new leadership in the first quarter of 2021, and President Duterte is coming to the end of his term in office. A combination of uncertainties will undoubtedly have a profound and complex impact on the South China Sea situation now and in the next few years.

First, the United States will maintain some continuity in its policy towards the South China Sea after President Biden takes office. There is a bipartisan consensus in the United States that China is a strategic competitor. The U.S. position and assessment will not change anytime soon with a new president in the White House. The United States views China, a country with rising power and global influence, as the main threat to its global hegemony, which is the root cause of its provocative decisions and actions regarding the South China Sea. So far as the public statements made by members of the Biden team to date, the new U.S. administration does not believe that comprehensive confrontation with China is the best option for maximizing U.S. national interests, and therefore may gear its China policy towards containment supplemented by engagement. When it comes to the South China Sea, it is expected that the Biden administration will continue the approach in the Trump era—confrontation and suppression—and will make no directional change until the mid-term election in 2022. Before that, the United States will mainly conduct FONOPs in its military operations and make legal demand to pressure China based on the international arbitration ruling.

Second, Vietnam is expected to be more assertive in its South China Sea policy as the dust is about to settle after political leadership changes. The Communist Party of Vietnam will soon hold its 13th National Congress in early 2021. Vietnam's foreign policy, including its South China Sea policy, has maintained continuity over the years, but there are differences in policy leanings among different decision makers. Facing the evolving regional and international situation, Vietnam's new leadership may display a new style in dealing with major issues or contingencies involving the South China Sea. Given the delicate balance between the “four pillars” of General Secretary, President, Prime Minister and National Assembly Chairman, and the fact that the United States and Japan keep investing in Vietnam to bring it into their fold for confronting China, Vietnam may take a tougher stance on issues when its major interests are at stake.

Third, with the approach of the Philippine presidential election, China-Philippines relations will again be tested by the South China Sea issue. In 2021, the Philippines will hold its presidential election. According to the current Philippine constitution, an incumbent president cannot seek reelection. In this case, facing the pressure from pro-US forces and the opposition in the Philippines, President Duterte's will be more wavering on his position with China and the South China Sea. President Duterte's daughter, Sara Duterte, and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Antonio Carpio who has taken a tough stance on the South China Sea issue, have announced that they would run for the presidency. It is difficult to predict the outcome. If a pro-U.S. and anti-Duterte president comes to power, the Philippines will inevitably change course and backtrack significantly on the South China Sea issue.


 Some Assessments on the South China Sea Situation in 2021

With the bell ringing for the New Year, the situation in the South China Sea will become complex, volatile and prone to conflicts.

Competition in the fields of international law and rules will be the two main issues affecting the evolution of the South China Sea situation in the coming years. As Vice President, Mr. Biden repeatedly stressed that China should abide by international rules as other countries and accept the arbitration ruling. In his interview with an U.S. media outlet, the president-elect again emphasized the importance of China's “playing by international rules” in U.S.-China relations. Therefore, “rules diplomacy” will probably become the top priority in the South China Sea policy of the Biden administration. The Biden administration will mobilize resources and efforts of allies and partner countries to keep hyping up the South China Sea issue and highlight the narrative that the arbitration award is already part of international law and rules; it may also encourage and push Vietnam to initiate a new international arbitration and covertly support unilateral actions by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia based on the award. The U.S. will also craft a new legal design for FONOPs and “substantiate” the arbitration award with military action. Under U.S. inducement and coercion, some claimants preoccupied with the arbitral award will not be able to resist making new moves in the struggle for international law and rules. For example, the Philippines is accelerating its constitutional amendment process to include the arbitration award in its constitution; Malaysia is either explicitly or implicitly pushing the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to consider its submission on outer continental shelf in the South China Sea; and Vietnam may take substantive steps in initiating an international arbitration.

Some extra-regional countries will follow the United States in seeking geopolitical interests in the South China Sea with their military presence, bringing the internationalization of the South China Sea issue to a new stage. Maintaining absolute military superiority in the Western Pacific stands at the center of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. After taking office, the Biden administration, rather than cutting its forward military deployment and military operations in the South China Sea, will consolidate the U.S. military primacy in the region with more diverse means and new operational and training approaches. In addition to maintaining regular, high-frequency FONOPs in the South China Sea, the United States will increase the use of unmanned underwater vehicles and unmanned drones, deploy the U.S. Coast Guard on a regular basis, and join law enforcement with coastal states to the South China Sea, as the main means to maintain its military superiority. Japan, aiming for a political and military power, is likely to respond actively to the U.S. request for joint military operations such as FONOPs in the South China Sea as Japan intends to constrain China in the East China Sea given its linkage to the South China Sea. Australia, a loyal follower of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, may continue to cooperate with the United States in the latter’s military operations in the South China Sea by participating in joint military exercises in the future. Britain and France are almost certain to send warships into the South China Sea in 2021 due to their own strategic interests and the U.S. push behind them.

Other claimant countries, backed by the United States, will repeatedly take provocative unilateral or joint actions to consolidate and expand their vested interests in the narrowing window for the COC consultations. With the U.S. backing and out of the need for post-COVID economic recovery and political consensus building through the South China Sea, Vietnam may once again risk pushing forward its oil and gas development project in the Wanan Tan waters and the Blue Whale gas field (known as “Block 118” in Vietnam). Once maritime conflicts flared up again between China and Vietnam due to oil and gas exploration in contested areas, the United States would give robust support to Vietnam as a vanguard in the U.S. efforts to contain China, based on its needs to make Vietnam a “proxy” for its interests in the South China Sea. Under such circumstances, Vietnam may take such reckless moves as to initiate an international arbitration on its disputes with China in the South China Sea. In addition, Malaysia may also come to achieve the purpose of bringing under its effective control the waters of Beikang Ansha and Nankang Ansha by continuously pushing oil and gas drilling in the disputed areas.

The COC consultations will have difficulty moving forward due to COVID-19, external interference and lack of consensus. The end of 2021 will be the deadline for the three-year vision for the COC consultations. Since 2017, with the joint efforts of China and ASEAN countries, the COC consultations have achieved early harvest and good outcomes as they reached framework agreement, formulated a single text, and completed the first reading of the text ahead of schedule. However, the prospects for concluding consultations by the end of 2021 will be dim, due to interference by some extra-regional countries, the tough position of a small number of claimant countries with high demand for extending the window for the process, unfolding negative effects of the arbitration award and divergence of interests among claimant countries. As the COC talks move into deep waters, the Biden administration may seize opportunities in the differences and tensions between China and some other claimants. Its proxy will disrupt and delay the consultation process. The United States will join hands with other extra-regional countries to exert direct influence on the process in some new ways—issuing official statements and releasing think tank reports.


The South China Sea is not only the common home of countries in the region, vital to the tranquility and well-being of the people on its coast, but also the platform for the building of a maritime community of shared future for the international community including coastal states to the South China Sea. China and ASEAN countries should put aside disputes, forge consensus, focus on cooperation, and commit themselves to building rules and order. Following the direction established by the dual-track approach, they need to work more closely to accelerate the pace of the COC consultations, and, at the same time, promote practical cooperation under the framework of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), in order to make new contributions to building the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.


WU Shicun is President of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and Chairman of China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea