The South China Sea: Disputes, Tensions and What’s Next

On June 3, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin announced the temporary suspension of President Rodrigo Duterte’s February decision to end its 1999 visiting forces agreement with the United States. The U.S. – Philippines alliance will stay in-tact for at least six more months.

The original February announcement was a surprise. Relations between the two countries have suffered since 2016 as the Duterte administration has sought a closer relationship with China and the U.S. has implemented the “America First” geopolitical agenda. Despite the suspension of the abrogation of the visiting forces agreement, the Philippines’ desire for better relations with China remains strong.

In a June 12 call with China’s President Xi Jinping, only nine days after salvaging the visiting forces agreement, Duterte claimed that his country will not allow anyone to use the Philippines to engage in anti-Chinese activities, according to China’s state-run media outlet Xinua.[1]

Nonetheless, even in this environment — especially in this environment — Duterte’s decision constitutes a practical acknowledgement of the complicated and unsettling geopolitical and security environment that has emerged in Southeast Asia and across the Indo-Pacific in 2020. As Locsin stated in a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Duterte’s U-turn on the visiting forces agreement was directly attributable to the “quite a number of things that are happening right now in the South China Sea.”[2]

Overview of South China Sea disputes

The South China Sea is among the most strategically important waterways in the world. Running from the eastern end of the Strait of Malacca north and east to the Taiwan Strait, it is home to extensive oil and gas resources and abundant fisheries. It is also a vital and especially active shipping route. The Strait of Malacca connecting the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean is considered one of the most important strategic chokepoints, or sea lane of communication (SLOC), in the world.

Six countries have claims to all or part of the South China Sea. China’s nine-dash line is by far the most expansive and encompasses nearly all of the sea including areas that are within the exclusive economic zones of the other claimant states: Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. Indonesia does not have a direct claim to contested territory in the South China Sea but does have an on-going dispute over the inclusion of Indonesian islands in the Natuna Sea within the nine-dash line claim. Several other states have important economic and national security interests attached to the South China Sea, especially in resisting China’s territorial claims and reinforcing freedom of navigation in and through this strategically critical waterway.

Competitive claims and even conflict in the South China Sea are not new and precede the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chinese nationalists (the Kuomintang) published an initial version of the nine-dash line (then an 11-dash line) and its supposed “historic” claims in 1947.China and South Vietnam fought a battle in 1974 over competing claims around the Paracel Islands, which along with the Spratly Islands are the most closely watched areas of competition in the South China Sea. 

The nature of South China Sea disputes changed in September 2013 when China began what the U.S. Congressional Research Service referred to as “extensive reclamation and construction on several reefs in the Spratly Island chain in the South China Sea.”[3] This effort included reinforcing existing features and building new ones. Initial CCP promises to not militarize these new islands were quickly abandoned.

Responses to China’s nine-dash claim have varied. The U.S. and several of its allies, including extra-regional states such as France and the United Kingdom, have increased the rate of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in which naval vessels steam through disputed waterways in order to demonstrate that China’s claims have not been accepted.

Regional claimants have also sought to build up military capabilities on islands in disputed territories. For example, in May the Philippines docked a military vessel at its newly built port on Thitu (also known as Pag-asa) island for the first time to send a message to China, in particular, that it is serious about its territorial sovereignty even if it also is serious about closer relations with Beijing.[4]

Diplomatic channels have also been pursued as a means of pushing back on China and its broad and increasingly arbitrary claims.[5] In 2014, the Philippines filed a complaint with the United Nations Permanent Court of Appeals over contested claims. The court resolved in July 2016 that China’s nine-dash line was invalid and ran counter to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets maritime borders 12 miles from its coast and national exclusive economic zones 200 miles from a country’s coast. The ruling also included a rebuke of China’s interference with fishing and oil exploration activities as a violation of the sovereignty of the Philippines. [6]

The ruling was cheered in the U.S. and Southeast Asian capitals but was essentially ignored by the CCP, which continued its island building and efforts to intimidate other states with South China Sea territorial claims.  

Growing regional tensions

This year has seen an increase in military activity in and geopolitical focus on the South China Sea that, in conjunction with intensifying US-China competition and the global coronavirus pandemic, have created conditions for rapid, if unintended, escalation.

Perhaps the most significant 2020 development occurred in late April when China “named and claimed” 80 obscure geographical features in the seas, many hundreds of miles from its own mainland. The claims bring the total of China-claimed land features above and below the water to 300.[7] China’s State Council also took the contentious move of naming two new administrative districts in the South China Sea to administer China’s claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

China’s claims of administrative control have been accompanied by efforts to harass and coerce other claimant states and their commercial and military assets and aggressive responses to China’s provocations. Recent notable incidents include:

  • In April 2020, China deployed the survey ship Haiyang Izhi ba hao (HD-8) through Vietnamese waters to survey five energy blocs being explored by the West Capella, a drill ship owned be Malaysian energy company Petronas. HD-8 repeatedly operated in close proximity to the Malaysian ship and continued to survey the area after the West Capella concluded its exploration.
  • Additionally, in April 2020, a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat operating in the Paracel Islands. Remarkably, the Chinese government accused the wooden fishing vessel of intentionally ramming the much larger steel hull ship. Chinese Coast Guard spokesman Zhang Jun even publicly “urged Vietnam to take measures to avoid similar incidents from happening in light of the increasingly frequent illegal fishing activities in Xisha [Paracels] waters.”[8]
  • In January 2020, Indonesia deployed four fighter jets and eight naval vessels to patrol islands in the Natuna Sea, which borders the South China Sea, in response to the repeated “trespassing” of Chinese coastguard vessels into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. The Indonesian military also deployed 600 personnel from the navy, army, and air force as part of enhanced patrols to secure the area.[9]

The combined effect of China’s unilateral claims, physical harassment of vessels, and persistent efforts to change the status quo in the South China Sea is both physical and psychological. These efforts signal China’s willingness and capacity to defend its claims, particularly against militarily weaker states, and a willingness to accept the costs of its regional assertiveness. They also help establish and then reinforce a changed status quo on the ground and an accompanying narrative of Chinese control. The CCP hopes that over time this presence, mounting military strength, and unwavering commitment to sovereignty claims will supersede international law and norms making it difficult for the U.S. and other regional powers to resist without risking a costly escalation.

Novel capabilities and tactics

China’s harassment of military vessels operating in the region has extended to U.S. and allied forces conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) and military exercises in the South China Sea. According to Admiral (ret) James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Chinese forces in the South China Sea are “using aggressive signalling; dangerously close maneuvering; illuminating U.S. ships with fire-control radar, which suggests the imminent launch of weapons; and overflying at very close range.”[10] As part of these actions, China is employing novel tactics and weapons that are heightening uncertainty and complicating tactical decision-making during rapidly unfolding crises and contingencies.

In February, the U.S. Navy reported that Chinese forces had fired a laser at a P-8 maritime surveillance plane operating above the South China Sea, temporarily blinding the plane’s pilots.[11] This incident was not the first or only alleged instance of China using lasers to blind pilots in the South China Sea and elsewhere. The U.S. Department of Defense has previously accused Chinese forces of using lasers to blind pilots over Djibouti in 2018 and in March 2019, Australian helicopter pilots participating in South China Sea military exercises were reportedly blinded by lasers emanating from Chinese fishing boats.[12]

This last incident also highlights a prominent and effective Chinese tactic for pursuing its South China Sea territorial claims: the use of China’s maritime militia to establish presence and seize initiative during crises in contested areas. The maritime militia is a large pool of commercial fishermen and mariners that frequently are equipped with military communications and even weaponry. Asia security analysts James Clad and Robert Manning have referred to the maritime militia as an “underestimated, ambiguous, quasi-stealth force” capable of supporting the PLA Navy and China’s territorial claims analogous in the maritime domain to the “little green men’ Russia deployed in Crimea, Ukraine, in 2014.”[13]

The maritime militia provides two attributes that could enable China to gain and maintain the initiative in maritime territorial disputes in that mark the region. Most notably, the maritime militia offers presence and scale.  It is a massive force stretched across much of the Western Pacific and is capable in many cases of beating both People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) forces and the navies of other regional militaries to specific hot spots or crisis areas in the massive maritime domain that is the Ind-Pacific.

Second, the presence of the maritime militia (not to mention the use of subthreshold weapons such as lasers and cyber-attacks) in maritime crisis zones creates uncertainty that benefits China’s approach to pressing territorial claims. By straddling the line between military and non-military assets, the maritime militia offer a powerful means of limiting the strategic and operational options available to military commanders attempting to rebuff China claims.

Is China exploiting COVID-19?

In a speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University in April, President Xi stated that “great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters,”[14] giving rise to assessments that China’s increasingly muscular behavior in the South China Sea and throughout the world emanates from Chinese efforts to leverage the major disaster of the coronavirus pandemic for geopolitical gain.[15] And while COVID-19 has certainly unleased new and enhanced dynamics that are contributing to the on-going escalation in the South China Sea, the pandemic is mainly serving to amplify existing CCP priorities and preoccupations.

To be sure, the CCP understands that the COVID-19 crisis creates an opportunity to pursue core interests while the world is distracted with a global health pandemic. It also enhances two potentially mutually reinforcing pressures. Global perceptions of weakness and / or culpability in the disease’s global spread need to be countered through strong action, be it via the donation of masks and other personal protective equipment or outmuscling interested parties in the South China Sea.

Such measures highlight the strength of the regime for an internal audience that cannot help but notice some initial cracks in the CCP armor and in President Xi’s authority stemming from coronavirus and the economic damage it has created as well as a year of unrest in Hong Kong, deepening friction with the U.S., and push back in Europe and elsewhere to China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

However, the roots of the current cycle of escalation run much deeper than COVID-19 and are tied to an enduring Chinese nationalism and CCP obsession with maps and perceived challenges to China’s territorial claims across the Indo-Pacific.

According to CCP mouthpiece the Global Times, China has “demanded 29 of the world’s top 500 companies to rectify their online maps, which incorrectly portrayed China’s territory in the first half of 2019.”[16] The CCP has also threatened economic sanctions against U.S. commercial airlines that included Taiwan as a separate nation in airport listings and famously cut ties with the National Basketball Association in 2019 due to comments made by one franchise executive in support of protestors in Hong Kong.

This nationalist sensitivity over China’s territorial claims—particularly Taiwan and the South China Sea—is entrenched in CCP foreign, security and defense policy. For example, in May, thirteen Beijing municipal departments launched a campaign to [crack] down on ‘problematic’ maps that threaten national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”[17]Problematic maps “refer to those that do not portray China’s territory correctly, covering the inclusion of Taiwan, the national boundary lines of Taiwan Island, the clear delineation of the Diaoyu Island and islands in the South China Sea.”[18]

China’s activities in the South China Sea can also be linked to the CCP frustration with recent events related to Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway province and is China’s most important and pressing sovereignty issue.

The January re-election of President Tsai Ing, who is a staunch supporter of a Taiwan that is independent from mainland China, was a blow to the CCP. So, too, has been conspicuous U.S. support to Taiwan over the last two years including having senior Trump administration officials virtually attend President Tsai’s May inauguration as well as legislation supporting closer relationship with Taiwan. According to Peter Dutton, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, “The larger political dynamic in the region from China’s perspective”—even in the South China Sea—“still has to do very much with the power dynamics in relation to Taiwan.”[19]

Recent activity indicates increasing instincts toward literal and figurative boundary pushing and resolve testing. On June 9, the Taiwanese Ministry of Defence announced it “took active responses to dispel” multiple Chinese Su-30 fighter jets flying over the southwest of the island, likely as a response to President Tsai’s inauguration on May 21. That same day, the U.S. flew a military aircraft over Taiwanese territory with permission from the government in Taipei. The move triggered an angry response from Beijing that claimed the flight “harmed [its] sovereignty, security and development rights.”[20]

A PLA Air Force (PLAAF) jet had previously flown over the median line of the Taiwan Strait in February and in December 2019, the PLAN sent the newly commissioned Shandong aircraft carrier though the Taiwan Straits.[21]

What’s next?

The tit-for-tat escalation resulting from an emboldened China and changed geopolitical dynamics has raised concern that the situation in the South China Sea and Taiwan are vulnerable to miscalculation and accidental escalation between the U.S. and China.

Indeed, the most impactful geopolitical development of 2020 has been the dramatic acceleration of the deterioration of U.S.-China relations and associated removal of the guardrails that previously bound U.S-China competition in East Asia. As former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel noted in a June article in The Diplomat, the US-China “relationship’s protective insulation has been stripped away, nerves are exposed, and the mechanisms for defusing tensions are defunct.”[22]

Of course, exposed nerves do not inevitably lead to kinetic conflict and off-ramps do remain for both the U.S. and China. However, this is still an environment in which the U.S. (and its allies and partners) are operating in close proximity to Chinese forces and in which China’s risk tolerance has grown as it deftly implements new weapons and tactics that increase uncertainty. It is not difficult to imagine an incident or accident in the South China Sea or near Taiwan from which the U.S., China, or another actor would struggle to back away.

Difficult choices face the U.S. and its allies as they seek to balance the need for a potent rejection of China’s efforts to present a fait accompli of sovereignty in the South China Sea with the desire to avoid an even more volatile and uncertainty security environment. Meeting this challenge will require creative means of applying economic, geopolitical, and military pressure on China that goes well beyond FONOPS.

Aligning interests and actions with allies and partners will be key, placing a renewed premium on the U.S. articulating a vision for the future of the Indo-Pacific and for the nature of American leadership in a changing region.

Tate Nurkin Founder and CEO
OTH Intelligence Group

References

[1] “Xi calls for coordinated efforts to promote China-Philippines cooperation”, Xinuanet, June 12, 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-06/12/c_139133288.htm

[2] Cliff Venzon, “Philippines notifies US it will keep military deal as tensions rise”, Nikkei Asian Review, June 3, 2020,https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/South-China-Sea/Philippines-notifies-US-it-will-keep-military-deal-as-tensions-rise

[3] Ben Dolven et al., “Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea: implications and policy options”, Congressional Research Service, June 18, 2015, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R44072.pdf

[4] Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, “Philippines bolsters posture in South China Sea after navy ship docks at new Spratly Islands port”, South China Morning Post, May 27, 2020,  https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3086253/philippines-bolsters-posture-south-china-sea-after-navy-ship

[5]

[6]

[7] Drake Long, “China’s New Claims In the South China Sea”, Radio Free Asia,  April 20, 2020, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/southchinasea-names-04202020180723.html

[8] Rukmani Gupta, “Chinese Activity in South China Sea”, Janes Intelligence Briefing, May 15, 2020

[9] “Indonesia deploys fighter jets, warships to patrol Natuna islands at centre of spat with Beijing”, Agence France-Presse through South China Morning Post, January 8, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3045156/indonesia-deploys-fighter-jets-warships-patrol-natuna

[10] James Stavridis, “World cannot ignore Chinese aggression in South China Sea”, Nikkei Asian Review, May 30, 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/World-cannot-ignore-Chinese-aggression-in-South-China-Sea

[11] Richard Javad Heydarian, “US, China sea tensions on a precarious laser’s edge”, Asia Times, March 2, 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/us-china-sea-tensions-on-a-precarious-lasers-edge/

[12] Lisa Martin, “Australian navy pilots hit with lasers during South China Sea military exercise”, The Guardian, May 28, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/may/29/australian-navy-pilots-hit-with-lasers-during-south-china-sea-military-exercise

[13] Clad, James and Manning, Robert, “Catching Controversy: China’s Maritime Militia,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, 15 December 2016, https://janes.ihs.com/Janes/Display/jdw64077-jdw-2017.

[14] Brahma Chellaney, “China risks imperial overstretch with post-pandemic aggression”, Nikkei Asian Review, June 10, 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/China-risks-imperial-overstretch-with-post-pandemic-aggression

[15] Brahma Chellaney, “China risks imperial overstretch with post-pandemic aggression”, Nikkei Asian Review, June 10, 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/China-risks-imperial-overstretch-with-post-pandemic-aggression

[16] “Beijing to launch campaign on maps that threaten national unity”, Global Times, May 26, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1189508.shtml

[17] Beijing to launch campaign on maps that threaten national unity”, Global Times, May 26, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1189508.shtml

[18] “Beijing to launch campaign on maps that threaten national unity”, Global Times, May 26, 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1189508.shtml

[19] Ole Tangen Jr., “Is China taking advantage of COVID-19 to pursue South China Sea ambitions”, Deutsche Welle, May 26, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/is-china-taking-advantage-of-covid-19-to-pursue-south-china-sea-ambitions/a-53573918

[20] “ China condemns ‘provocative’ U.S. military flight over Taiwan”, Reuters, June 11, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-usa-taiwan/china-condemns-provocative-us-military-flight-over-taiwan-idUSKBN23I1E0

[21] “Chinese fighter jets briefly enter Taiwan airspace: Taipei”, AFP, June 9, 2020, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/chinese-fighter-jets-briefly-enter-taiwan-airspace-taipei/ar-BB15eaxl

[22] Daniel Russel, “The 3 Flashpoints That Could Turn a US-China ‘Cold War’ Hot”, The Diplomat, June 3, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/the-3-flashpoints-that-could-turn-a-us-china-cold-war-hot/