By Collin Koh*
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis stalled the intended conclusion of the proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) by 2021. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr remarked that the negotiations between ASEAN and China ‘went nowhere’. ASEAN countries and China have a tough job cut out for them in overcoming serious differences around the COC — not least of which involve the geographical scope of any deal and the role of non-signatories.
China’s coercion and lawfare in the South China Sea also became normalised in 2021. In March, revelations of Chinese boat swarms, ostensibly maritime militia, in the Whitsun Reef could have surprised many — not least because the Philippines has sought closer ties with Beijing while drawing away from Washington since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power. The revelations came not long after China introduced its new Coast Guard Law, a measure that allows the use of force against perceived transgressors of Beijing’s claimed maritime sovereignty.
Beijing’s revised Maritime Traffic Safety Law took effect in September and throughout the second half of 2021. China continued its maritime coercion of its Southeast Asian rivals, including Indonesia and Malaysia. Beijing began interfering with Indonesia’s oil drilling in the North Natuna Sea exclusive economic zone (EEZ) — a clear escalation from China’s promise to respect traditional fishing rights in the area. China reportedly demanded Jakarta to cease drilling.
These developments occurred while China and ASEAN member states continued to express support for diplomatic efforts to maintain peace and stability in the area — including holding out hope for COC talks to be concluded by 2022. Still, ASEAN members have not been allowing Beijing to ride roughshod over them in the South China Sea. Despite COVID-19 straining the readiness of their maritime forces, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam continue to build up their counter-maritime presence within their EEZs in response to repeated Chinese incursions.
The South China Sea also saw further interest from outside the region. Building on the notes verbales issued by concerned Southeast Asian parties and major powers last year, Japan and New Zealand joined the fray with their own submissions to the UN Secretary-General highlighting their concerns about the situation — not least China’s proclivity towards the use of maritime coercion.
Military activities similarly increased in 2021. The French Navy submarine Emeraude traversed the South China Sea as part of its Indo-Pacific tour in February, while a United Kingdom Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group deployed US F-35B joint strike fighters to the South China Sea in July. The Japanese helicopter destroyer Kaga and the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group also conducted drills in the area in October, with the two navies staging their first-ever anti-submarine training in November.
The trends observed in 2021 offer little comfort for what may happen in the new year. ASEAN countries’ focus on COVID-19 means Southeast Asian South China Sea parties are more likely to seek stronger ties with China to kickstart their post-pandemic recoveries. While their maritime forces will continue to hold up against Chinese transgressions, these governments will seek to avoid ramping up negative public rhetoric against Beijing.
The stalemate in the South China Sea has become the normal state of play and is unlikely to break under current circumstances. The 2022 Philippine elections could be crucial to whether Beijing decides to undertake pre-emptive actions over the Scarborough Shoal where an uneasy truce has held since Duterte came to power — particularly if a pro-United States or anti-China candidate looks poised to win the presidency.
The presence of actors from outside the region looks set to persist, not least because several ASEAN countries view it as helpful to preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea. This is a key reason why Duterte revoked his decision to terminate the Philippine–United States Visiting Forces Agreement. And despite rumblings among some Southeast Asian countries about the potential associated risks of the AUKUS defence deal in September, regional countries continue to beef up economic, health and security engagements with Australia, the United Kingdom and United States.
New impetus to conclude COC talks looks uncertain. Cambodia seems eager to get the talks concluded in 2022 under its ASEAN chairmanship, but not all fellow ASEAN member states share the same enthusiasm.
A lingering trust deficit between ASEAN parties in the South China Sea and Beijing has been fuelled by China’s continued moves to consolidate and enhance its hold over disputed areas. ASEAN and China could reinvigorate the COC process via in-person talks next year, but any major progress may hinge on the ability of concerned Southeast Asian countries to rebound from COVID-19. Until then, we should brace for more or less of the same — a no less turbulent South China Sea.
*About the author: Collin Koh is a Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.