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.
Tensions between China and SCS claimant parties continued amid U.S. reiteration of its rejection of China’s claims in region. In notable toughening of rhetoric, South East Asia regional organisation ASEAN 27 June affirmed UN Convention on Law of the Sea as “basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”. Beginning mid-June, three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups – USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan – simultaneously patrolled Western Pacific for first time since 2017; U.S. 17 June stated that deployment was to “promote security, stability and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific region”. U.S. media Fox News 9 June reported that U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers operated over SCS. U.S. envoy to UN Kelly Craft 2 June reiterated in note to UN Sec Gen Guterres that U.S. rejects Chinese claims as “inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.” Meanwhile, reports of regular Chinese activity in SCS continued. Chinese ship 8 June began laying undersea cables between its outposts in disputed Paracel Islands; satellite imagery suggested that cables were laid between Tree Island, North Island and Woody Island. U.S. media Radio Free Asia (RFA) 10 June reported Chinese research and survey vessel entered waters close to Pratas islands, which Taiwan controls and China claims; 16 June reported that two separate vessel-tracking tools detected other Chinese survey vessel within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Vietnamese FM 14 June stated that two Chinese ships 10 June rammed Vietnamese fishing boat near Chinese-occupied Lincoln Island in Paracels before seizing its catch and equipment. Filipino Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana 9 June marked completion of construction work on Thitu island in disputed area of Spratlys. Australian High Commissioner to India 2 June raised concern over maritime militias in SCS and 17 June noted that China “not as committed” to existing international order as Australia and India. After Indonesia 28 May stated China’s “nine dash line” claim in region lacks basis in international law and violates Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, China 2 June offered boundary negotiations with Jakarta; Indonesian MFA 5 June rejected offer.
The long-simmering South China Sea dispute is doomed to escalate if the countries contesting its waters fail to take steps to reduce tensions.
China is one of its own worst enemies in the South China Sea, as its local governments and agencies struggle for power and money, inflaming tensions with its neighbours, illustrated by Beijing’s latest standoff with the Philippines.
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.
Originally published in The Straits Times
Originally published in The Interpreter