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 continued between Vietnam and China over latter’s seismic surveys in disputed area, and between U.S. and China amid U.S. activity in South China Sea (SCS). Vietnamese official 6 Nov said govt was exploring legal action and other options, including through UN Charter and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, against China over its seismic surveys since July in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, in area also claimed by China; China 8 Nov said it hopes Vietnam will not “complicate” SCS issue, accused Vietnam and other claimants of “invading and occupying” Chinese islands; countries discussed issues late month, agreed to continue working for peaceful solution. At ASEAN-China summit in Bangkok, Chinese premier Li Keqiang 3 Nov cited progress toward code of conduct among SCS claimants, and said China “willing to work with ASEAN, to sustain long term peace and stability” in SCS. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper 17 Nov accused Beijing of increasing “coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives” in area; Chinese counterpart next day urged him to “stop flexing muscles” and not provoke and escalate tensions in SCS; Esper responded reiterating U.S. “will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows” and will “encourage and protect the rights of other sovereign nations to do the same”. U.S. 15 Nov deployed littoral combat ship (designed for operations near shore) for first time for freedom of navigation operations near Mischief reef in disputed Spratly Islands; 19 Nov vowed to continue freedom of navigation operations in SCS, and to “continue support and to help modernise the Philippines armed forces and to improve maritime security and domain awareness”. China 20 Nov called on U.S. to stop sending naval vessels to avoid “mishap”. U.S. and Australian navies held joint navy drills in SCS early Nov; U.S. 20 Nov announced it will provide Vietnam with another coast guard cutter to boost its ability to patrol SCS.
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