Last year, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea took the centre stage in the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. The recent ruling by the international tribunal at The Hague grabbed headlines across the globe and brought to attention an increasingly volatile region, one in which China has been slowly but steadily increasing its dominance. This piece will attempt to provide a narrative of the geopolitical disputes in the South China Sea, as well as provide an insight into what is at stake for the parties involved in the dispute.
The territorial disputes in the South China Sea stem from competing claims made by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan. Historically, the numerous maritime features in the South China Sea have been used for navigational purposes by many seafarers without any party exercising sovereignty. However, this changed in 1946 when China established a military outpost on the Spratly islands despite competing claims from Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Chinese presence in the South China Sea was largely ignored by other states, as they seemed to be more engaged with their local affairs and viewed China’s activities as a minor hindrance.
In the 1970s, the situation escalated quickly due to reports of oil and gas reserves present in the South China Sea. A series of skirmishes between the militaries of China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan failed to result in any conclusive legal agreement. Instead, more claims were made on the geographical features, further sowing the seeds of discontent. The possibility of an all-out war in the South China Sea seemed to have abated in 2002 with the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The declaration, signed between the member states of ASEAN and China, included the following clause: “The Parties reaffirm their commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally recognized principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state-to-state relations”. What is notable about the declaration is the lack of enforcement mechanisms, allowing room for the various governments to renege on the declaration.
For the half decade after the signing of the declaration, conflict in the South China Sea de-escalated rapidly, as diplomatic channels appeared to be the preferred choice of resolving conflicts. On 6th May 2009, the governments of Malaysia and Vietnam jointly submitted information on the limits of the continental shelf, delineating their claims to their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). China’s immediate response to this was to submit their own map with the now-famous Nine-Dash Line to the UN. The claims outlined by China in this map include territories claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Malaysia.
Tensions escalated further in April 2012 when Chinese fishing vessels entered the Scarborough Shoal (claimed by the Philippines) and were apprehended by the Philippine Navy. Continued Chinese military presence in the shoal remains a point of contention between both countries, with no signs of either party backing down. The Philippines, seeking to resolve the dispute without any bloodshed, filed a suit against China. The ruling made by the international tribunal in The Hague was overwhelmingly in favour of the Philippines, and was celebrated by Filipinos as a victory. China, on the other hand, condemned the ruling, going as far as to issue a strongly worded statement through its state-owned news agency Xinhua, stating that “China neither accepts nor recognizes it”.
This latest development highlights an issue of strategic importance to many of the governments laying claim to the region: one of nationalism. By increasing the prominence of conflicts between claimants within its populace, politicians can stir up strong feelings of nationalism. While Filipinos celebrated in their streets by waving flags and chanting anti-Chinese slogans, Chinese citizens took to the internet in a massive outpouring of discontent, going as far as to call for a boycott of Philippine-manufactured goods. Stoking nationalism among the populace might be desirable for politicians, but this can have far-reaching consequences, some even undesirable ones. These claims have only done more damage, causing hatred for another country in the name of nationalism.
Another possible motivation for increasing the saliency of the territorial disputes is that it deflects attention away from domestic problems. By focusing the attention of the populace towards a perceived external threat, the state can avoid domestic pressure to act on certain issues. However, such a measure is not without its risks: if the perceived external threat were able to gain an upper hand, the state would lose its credibility and would seem weak. This might be a possible explanation for China’s response to the international tribunal’s ruling as it seeks to maintain its projection of a powerful state in defying even an international body.
It is also possible for the state to use territorial disputes as a means to expedite the nation-building process. China’s historical claims to the South China Sea have been dismissed as fiction by academics. This practice is not just restricted to maritime claims; China has had in the past, extended distorted view of history to insinuate that much of Central and Inner Asia had been under Chinese conquest in the past. Much of this has been done to promote national unity. Additionally, by portraying themselves as the heir to China’s imperial legacy, the Chinese Communist party ensures that their rule is legitimised.
Nationalistic interests and domestic pressures aside, natural resources are an important factor to consider. The EEZ claimed by the respective countries involved in the dispute is thought to be rich in oil and gas reserves. Being able to harness these resources would bring with it a great boost in trade and tax revenue. The possibility of securing the future of a country’s energy reserves is also a strong security motivation to strengthen territorial claims.
For countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, these waters mean something else entirely. Citizens of both countries commonly venture into contested territories to fish, as these areas are often abundant in marine resources. A state is not likely to back down from threats made against one’s own civilians, as it would project an image of acquiescence and weakness, none of which are desirable attributes to have. Perhaps this is why China has reacted with strength, going as far as building military outposts in these areas to secure their territorial claims, which would also allow them to claim an EEZ.
The geopolitical consternation that is the South China Sea does not just involve the states with competing claims. American interests in the region escalated by former President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia cannot be overlooked. A frequently cited reason for their military presence in these waters are their economic interests, namely to ensure the security of trade routes. Any conflict that occurs in the South China Sea would greatly increase the cost of transportation of goods, disrupting global trade and destabilising the region.
Perhaps an issue of greater concern to international observers would be China’s chequebook diplomacy. China’s denial of the recent ruling by the international tribunal led Philippine government officials to raise the issue at the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The ASEAN way of acting by consensus proved to be a hindrance as they failed to produce a communique of any significant meaning. Divisions within ASEAN may be a result of state actors having to walk a ‘diplomatic tightrope’ as China’s soft power in the regions steadily strengthens.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s cosying up to Beijing would be of great concern to America. Of late, Duterte’s rhetoric has been increasingly pro-Beijing. He has gone as far as to say ‘time to say goodbye’ to the US, and that “there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way”. Duterte further strengthened his support for Beijing when his first foreign state visit was to China. America, once a traditional ally of the Philippines, had now lost its only strong foothold on the region. If America were to regain its influence, it would have needed to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement but President Donald Trump has already signed an executive order for America to withdraw from it.
The failure of America to regain any sort of foothold in the region might imply the waning of the American hegemony, and possibly the beginnings of China’s hegemony. The reconstructing of the global order would depend on China’s commitment to portray itself as a balancing force, promoting harmony instead of being an aggressive threat to its neighbours. It typically would then be in America’s interests to counterbalance China’s increasing influence. However, President Trump’s America First approach in his administration means that China and other associated issues are unlikely to be on his priority list. This will give China the perfect opportunity to position themselves as a true world superpower in the midst of America’s neglect.
To conclude, what is at stake in the South China Sea is not just a matter of regional significance; it involves actors on a much more global scale. It involves several strategic geopolitical features, as well as non-tangible determinants such as nationalism and regional integration. It remains to be debated whether these factors can be peacefully resolved but at this critical juncture, we are still in uncharted waters. In this day and age we live in, nothing is certain anymore.
Gabriel Chen is a 3rd year student studying Economics at the University of Warwick. His writing interests include Southeast Asia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.