South China Sea

China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea has raised tensions over competing territorial claims and maritime rights. In July 2016, an International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea found in favour of the Philippines on fourteen of fifteen points in its dispute with China, ruling that Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim is inconsistent with international law. China rejected the decision, but subsequently its relations with the Philippines have warmed. Tensions between littoral states and China remain, however, as do disagreements between Beijing and Washington over freedom of navigation and trade. The risk of clashes is real. Crisis Group seeks to reduce friction and promote shared stewardship of the sea and its natural resources.

CrisisWatch South China Sea

Unchanged Situation

Philippines and China signed economic deals despite differences over South China Sea (SCS), while U.S. and Beijing continued maritime activity in region.

Philippines and China struck agreements amid SCS tensions. Philippine President Marcos Jr. 3-5 Jan visited Chinese capital Beijing and met President Xi, signing agreements on issues including fisheries, infrastructure and finance; meeting followed late Dec announcement of new SCS hotline between two states. Philippine Supreme Court 11 Jan declared 2005 joint oil exploration pact between China, Philippines and Vietnam unconstitutional; Philippine foreign ministry said it would take ruling into account when resuming talks with China over possible cooperation on oil and gas in disputed waters. Former National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos 13 Jan said Philippines was examining Chinese partnership proposal with fishing villages in West Philippine Sea; Marcos 15 Jan clarified Philippines and China only have agreement, not partnership, allowing Filipino fishermen to fish in SCS.

U.S. and Chinese ships continued maritime activity in region. China late Dec sent its largest coastguard vessels to patrol Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which remained present during month; vessels arrived as Indonesia and Vietnam finalised their 12-year negotiation to delimit overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones late Dec, which may challenge China’s “nine-dash-line” claims. Indonesia mid-month deployed warship to North Natuna Sea to monitor Chinese Coast Guard vessel. U.S. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group and accompanying warships 12 Jan entered SCS and conducted routine operations; in response, Chinese Shandong aircraft carrier group held series of “confrontational drills” in SCS. Media reports mid-month suggested Beijing turned down U.S. offer to hold military talks on SCS ahead of U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken’s visit to China in Feb. Meanwhile, Japanese Coast Guard 13 Jan concluded four-day security drills training with Malaysian counterpart on repelling foreign intruders in SCS.

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In The News

14 Dec 2016
The chair of ASEAN has the power to set the agenda. What [the chair] has been used for historically is to cut things out of the agenda, particularly the South China Sea. Voice of America
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