On October 27th 2015, the USS Lassen patrolled within the twelve-nautical-mile territorial limit that China claims around the Spratly islands. This is perceived as a great challenge to China’s sovereignty claim on the islands and adjacent sea area in the South China Sea. Yet this action taken by the US Navy is not unexpected: it is attributed to China’s assertive policies in recent years. China’s maritime neighbours, including Vietnam and the Philippines, also expect a strong presence of American power in these maritime territorial disputes. And most importantly, Washington has found that the South China Sea is significant to its Asia Pivot strategy. To keep peace and stability in the South China Sea, effective communication between Beijing and Washington is vital.
Since 2009, Beijing has become increasingly assertive in maritime territorial. On March 8 2009, Chinese trawlers stopped directly in front of the USNS Impeccable, forcing the ship to make an emergency stop in order to avoid collision. Chinese law enforcement vessels police China’s fishing ban by expelling and detaining fishery ships from Vietnam and the Philippines. Sometimes shooting may take place, although no deaths have yet occurred. In May 2011, Chinese law enforcement ships cut cables in waters claimed by Hanoi. From April to June 2012, a skirmish took place on the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines. Beijing dispatched law enforcement ships and warships to protect the fishery ships that entered into the waters claimed by Manila. Beijing also took economic sanctions towards imported goods from the Philippines. These mixed actions were called “Huangyan.” It is a new way to deal with the territorial disputes by using military, economic and administrative power together. In this incident, the Philippines withdrew its warship. Another incident took place in May 2014. A Chinese state-owned company, CNOOC, established the HYSY 981 oil rig in an area claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi. Vietnamese boats were rammed by Chinese vessels. After that, angry Vietnamese took to the streets to protest the actions taken by Beijing, causing great damage by violent actions. Later Beijing took sanctions against Hanoi as a way of punishment.
What has attracted most attention is China’s land reclamation on disputed islands. Since late December 2013, Military and civilian facilities have been built on these islands. These actions reveal that China has taken the upper hand in the islands disputes, although Vietnam occupies most of the islands. Beijing’s strategy is sophisticated. That is to say, using force is unlikely. PLAN only plays the role of guardian. Law enforcement vessels and fishery ships are on the frontline to confront ships from Vietnam and the Philippines. When tensions arise, Beijing uses sanctions as a way of punishment to increase the cost of resistance for Hanoi and Manila.
Hanoi and Manila are unlikely to react strongly by using force towards China. The Scarborough Shoal and HYSY 981 standoffs showed that China possesses advantage in terms of material power. Seeking arbitration is wise for these two states. Manila has done that. On October 30th 2015, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague dismissed Beijing’s claim that the disputes were about territorial sovereignty and announced that hearings would be held to decide the maritime rights of the Philippines. However, Beijing rejected the decision and insisted on its sovereignty claim and historical rights. Even if the Court makes a final judgement that favours Manila, arbitration can hardly change the current situation, due to China’s strong presence in the South China Sea. Besides, rulemaking at the regional level is another way to constrain China. In 2002, China and ASEAN states signed Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). China promised to avoid using force to settle the territorial disputes. China and ASEAN states also reached consensus on prompting the process of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC). Nevertheless, in recent years, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that COC requires a long time. This indicates a delaying strategy by China to guarantee its advantage on the sea.
Facing an assertive China, Hanoi and Manila realize institutions can do little to restrain China. Both expect a strong US power in the South China Sea to counter China. For Washington, the “hub and spoke” alliance system in East Asia is perceived as vital to guarantee the homeland safety of China’s neighbours, which is also a strategy for the United States to sustain its hegemony at the regional level. Historically, the United States insisted on a principle of taking no sides in these territorial disputes. When conflicts took place in 1974, 1988 and 1995, the US Navy did not support Hanoi or Manila. But in 2010 in Hanoi, Hillary Clinton reiterated the interests of the United States in the South China Sea, including freedom of navigation, free trade and avoiding conflicts on the sea. From then on, officials from Washington criticized the actions and claims taken by Beijing, particularly the land reclamation, as a violation of freedom of navigation and international law. It indicates that Washington perceives the South China Sea as an important area in the Asia Pivot strategy. And in essence, taking no side on the issue is unlikely. In this sense, it is no surprise to see the US Navy react to China’s assertive policies. According to recent discourses of the Pentagon and the White House, more US warships will patrol near the twelve-nautical-mile limit of the islands occupied by China in the near future.
Beijing will continue to face strong interference by the United States. That is to say, the South China Sea has become a new arena for competition between great powers. The United States has hegemony at the regional level, while China is a rising power, a situation known as the Thucydides Trap. Historically, this situation is quite dangerous, like that before the First World War in Europe. Self-restraint and efficient communication between Beijing and Washington are important, given both sides have little trust for each other. In this situation, it is important to figure out the bottom line of each side and try to avoid the worst situation that cannot be reconciled. For Beijing, not only energy sources and fishery resources are important, but also the communication lanes for the import of petroleum from the Middle East. The People Liberation Army of Navy also requires a large sea area as a buffer zone for its homeland defence. These two factors can explain why China behaves assertively in the sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, although “core interest” is not explicitly stated by officials from Beijing. As for the United States, it is important to maintain free navigation and trade interests in the South China Sea, given more than half of its trade is in the Asia Pacific. It is also important to guarantee the security of its alliance members and significant partners.
Washington has to consider the request from Manila and Hanoi to stop China’s assertive behaviours on the South China Sea. Therefore, it requires time to prove if Beijing and Washington can play this game better for a win-win situation to keep peace and stability in the South China Sea. Chinese president Xi Jinping proposes a conception of “new great power relationship” in 2012. The South China Sea can be a perfect place to test this theory.
Weiqun Qi is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. His thesis concerns China’s policies towards its neighbours on territorial disputes with a specific focus on the existing security order in East Asia.
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