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Stirring up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm
Stirring up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
Law enforcement personnels examine passing ships with telescopes on the patrol vessel Haixun-21 on the South China Sea, on 21 April 2015. AFP/Guo Qiuda
Report 267 / Asia

Stirring up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm

The South China Sea is the cockpit of geopolitics in East Asia, and growing tensions pose a serious threat to stability in the region. China and ASEAN must take advantage of the currently favourable environment to establish new codes of crisis management, especially at sea, to withstand any new conflicts.

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Executive Summary

The South China Sea is the cockpit of geopolitics in East Asia. Five countries – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – plus Taiwan have substantial and competing territorial and maritime claims in a body of water that is both an important source of hydrocarbons and fisheries and a vital trade corridor. The recent history has been scarred by cycles of confrontation. Today, the clashes are becoming more heated, and the lulls between periods of tension are growing shorter. As the region continues to grow in influence and power, the handling of the competing claims will set the tone for relations within East Asia for years. The cost of even a momentary failure to manage tensions could pose a significant threat to one of the world’s great collaborative economic success stories. Despite China’s controversial development of some of the reefs it controls, the current relatively low temperature of the disagreement offers a chance to break the cycle, but it is likely to be short-lived. The countries of the region, supported by the wider international community, need to embrace the opportunity while it lasts.

The competition in the South China Sea goes back decades if not centuries, but the dynamics of the latest round of confrontation were set in motion by China’s decision in May 2014 to deploy an oil exploration rig in waters claimed by both it and Viet­nam. The deployment provoked deadly riots in Vietnam and widespread diplomatic condemnation: the rig was withdrawn two months later. The unexpected intensity of the response and the diplomatic fallout that followed prompted some deep reflection in policy circles in Beijing and the adoption of a less provocative stance. Despite retooling its tactics, however, Beijing remains committed to consolidating its claims over the islands and waters within what is known as the “nine-dash line”, an ill-defined loop that encompasses the majority of the area of the South China Sea, as can be seen by its extensive construction on a number of reefs it controls.

Though the current situation does not inspire confidence in a lasting calm, it nevertheless offers a window of opportunity for regional stakeholders to harness China’s desire to avert another major deterioration in relations. In particular, Beijing has struck a more cooperative tone toward ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). The ten-member grouping is pushing for a formal Code of Conduct to guard against and mitigate the impact of accidental clashes leading to confrontation.

Beijing’s tactical adjustment could be another instance of its well-established practice of oscillating between assertive actions to expand control followed by gestures to repair diplomatic ties and consolidate gains. This cycle has become more compressed in recent years, with shorter lulls and more-frequent flare-ups, owing in part to China’s increased desire and capability to advance its claims.

Beijing’s twin policy goals of stability on its periphery and safeguarding asserted maritime rights, which are inherently inconsistent in the context of the South China Sea, mean it continues to seek opportunities to gain ground when it deems tensions are manageable. Although the aftermath of the oil-rig deployment triggered a reassessment, not least because it led to a strengthening of ties between key South East Asian claimants and the U.S., the mainstream of its foreign policy analysts concluded that China needs only to push its claims with more patience and tactical savvy, rather than reconsider the claims as such.

President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy style has been characterised by a combination of soothing words and muscular actions, leading domestic and external observers to conclude he is more nationalist, more determined to assert maritime claims and less risk-averse than his predecessor. In an environment where a hard line carries far less political risk than moderation, foreign policy decision-making and implementation skew toward stridency.

Accordingly, confidence in China’s promise of a “peaceful development” has been dropping in key capitals around the region. The Philippines reacted to a sense of “being bullied by China” by tightening relations with its treaty ally, the U.S. Members of the Manila policy establishment who supported bilateral engagement with Beijing lost influence after a mid-2012 standoff that began with the Philippines trying to arrest a group of Chinese fishermen and ended with China seizing control of the Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both but controlled by neither before the incident. In January 2013, Manila initiated international arbitration of its dispute with China. Beijing was incensed, refused to participate, and bilateral relations have gone into a virtual freeze.

Although Beijing’s subsequent gestures at repairing ties with Vietnam have restored some hope in bilateral diplomacy, the deployment of the oil rig has done lasting damage to Hanoi’s confidence in both the predictability and intentions of its giant neighbour. Vietnam is hedging the uncertainty by courting Washington; pushing ASEAN to take a more proactive role in managing South China Sea issues; and preparing a possible legal case of its own against China.

Indonesia, ASEAN’s largest member and de facto leader, views Beijing’s strategic intentions warily. It says it is not a South China Sea claimant but has lodged protests against the nine-dash line, which appears to extend claims to near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Since 2009, China has reportedly reacted sharply to Jakarta’s attempt to enforce its laws against Chinese boats allegedly fishing illegally. The splintering of ASEAN in 2012 over South China Sea issues distressed Indonesia, which is invested in its norms and unity, and raised questions among the foreign policy elite about whether China seeks to undermine the regional body.

Beijing’s revision to its tactics offers an opportunity to break the debilitating cycle of tension spikes followed by relative calm. Overtures to secure the region’s cooperation for its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, a Xi Jinping priority, may provide further scope for multilateral diplomacy at a time when Beijing is verbally endorsing ASEAN’s lead role in maintaining South China Sea peace and stability – even if it does so mainly to block U.S. influence and rein in the Philippines. Indonesia is still resolved to guide the formulation of a maritime Code of Conduct, which would commit claimants to a set of consensus-based behavioural norms. Vietnam and the Philippines are also still invested in that ASEAN-driven process. The 2015 ASEAN chair, Malaysia, is well positioned to lead, as a claimant country that has amicable relations with China and is one of the more diplomatically capable members. The region thus stands a credible chance to experience a more durable calm in the troubled waters.

Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 (C) sails near Japan Coast Guard vessels (R and L) and a Japanese fishing boat (front 2nd L), East China Sea, 1 July 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo
Report 280 / Asia

East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 

Dangerous aerial and naval encounters are rising as China and Japan spar over disputed islands in the East China Sea. A promising reconciliation process has floundered. To prevent an accident tipping the dispute into open hostility, both sides urgently need a credible crisis management protocol to insulate any negotiations from their broader rivalry.

Executive Summary

As China-Japan relations oscillate between hostility and détente, a credible crisis management protocol is urgently needed to manage the increasing, unplanned contacts between their military aircraft and ships. Despite intermittent negotiations, the two have been unable to agree on a maritime and air communication mechanism to help fill this gap. After suspension due to the 2012 Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, China agreed to resume talks on the mechanism, comprising a hotline, meetings between defence authorities and communication protocols between forward military units in 2014. Dangerously close military aerial encounters appear to have played a fundamental role in the decision, but negotiations soon stalled over the area the mechanism would cover, an issue with implications for the dispute over the islands’ sovereignty. Resentment arising from other aspects of the relationship hardened China against compromise. With a prickly bilateral détente now in place, however, the two governments should prioritise crisis management and insulate the negotiations from their broader rivalry.

The need for crisis management is growing. The air forces are coming into contact more frequently, as each attempts to administer the overlapping Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ). Several close calls have already occurred. The navies are also increasingly in contact, as China sends ships further from its shores with greater regularity. Encounters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, East China Sea and Western Pacific will continue. Different national operating guidelines, applied in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, exacerbate the risks of miscalculation. Nationalism, increasingly institutionalised distrust on both sides and limited opportunities to build trust through military exchanges make it harder to prevent rapid escalation of hostilities should a deadly incident transpire.

Meanwhile, both sides are enhancing their military capabilities in the East China Sea. China is expanding its naval and air operations further into open waters in a bid to extend its maritime footprint to the Western Pacific, and Japan is shoring up the defences of its south-western island chain in response. Bolstered by the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, the Abe administration pushed through more proactive security legislation – the most significant shift in Japan’s defence posture since the end of the Second World War.

Against this backdrop, China and Japan need to seize the opportunity proffered by their current fragile reconciliation to establish crisis management ties. China should delink the subject from the political relationship and sovereignty questions: an unplanned clash with Japan would neither benefit its goal of achieving peripheral stability nor safeguard its rights. Japan should continue to engage and avoid inflammatory remarks that increase political risks for moderates in China. Staged implementation of the proposed mechanism, beginning with the hotline, could be a near-term confidence-building measure. Fundamental mistrust makes true reconciliation unlikely in the near future, but there is common interest in preventing or limiting an accidental crisis that would harm the political, security and economic interests of both. China and Japan should thus launch the maritime and air communication mechanism as soon as possible.


To enable agreement on the Maritime and Air Communication Mechanism 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Instruct front-line personnel, in the mechanism’s absence, to adhere to protocols in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), to which both are party. 
  2. Discuss concerns about risk of collision by fishing boats and/or coast guard vessels in waters around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the High-Level Consultations on Maritime Affairs, a multi-agency forum that includes the coast guard. 
  3. Restart vice-ministerial-level defence exchanges and resume exchanges between defence universities and research organisations.
  4. China should delink Diaoyu/Senkaku sovereignty from the mechanism negotiations. 
  5. Japan should refrain from comments or actions which suggest revisionist views of history and a departure from the Murayama Statement, its 1995 official apology for wartime aggression, and immediately distance itself from provocative statements made by officials and politicians. 
  6. Japan should maintain an open dialogue with Beijing over the enhancement of its south-western defences and refrain from negatively publicising China’s lawful military activities, such as legitimate overflights and naval transits. 

To ensure effective implementation 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Keep the hotline open at all times and ensure responsible persons/units have authority to reach decision-makers and front-line personnel quickly in an emergency and to make decisions to contain and de-escalate the crisis; and utilise the hotline in case of an incident before resorting to public criticism.
  2. Give front-line operators adequate training and hold those who violate the rules accountable.
  3. Increase direct contact between front-line troops and personnel by:
    1. organising a second round of mutual naval visits; and
    2. stepping-up participation in multilateral training forums based on CUES, such as the Western Pacific Naval Symposium and others.
  4. Agree to address violations first bilaterally, including in defence authority meetings, so as to maximise space for resolution, rather than arguing them in the media.
  5. Consider incorporating guidelines for behaviour other than communications within the mechanism later, possibly based on those included within the 2014 U.S.-China defence memorandums or CUES.

To third-party governments and non-governmental institutions, such as research organisations, private groups and think-tanks with ties to both parties:

  1. Host forums that bring the parties together for discussions on crisis management and mitigation, including by;
    1. organising workshops to review CUES and other international naval and air agreements containing guidelines on rules of behaviour; 
    2. facilitating the sharing of best practices to avoid incidents at sea, whether in forums, symposiums or joint research projects; and
    3. encouraging participation by both coast guards and militaries, especially commanders in charge of front-line operations.
  2. Organise multilateral naval exercises on CUES implementation involving both China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF).

Beijing/Tokyo/Brussels, 30 June 2016