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The South China Sea: Parsing The Plethora Of Prognostications For 2020 – Analysis


It’s that time of year again when a plethora of prognosticators proffer their predictions for developments in the South China Sea in the year ahead.  They range from hunky -dory to an annus horribilis

More towards the optimistic end of the spectrum is Singapore’s Collin Koh, a frequent commentator on South China Sea affairs. He thinks that China and the U.S. will not confront each other militarily in the South China Sea. Of course neither wants that and they will both try to avoid it.  But they may well stumble into it because their fundamental struggle for dominance in the region has entered an action-reaction phase. Contrary to Koh’s hope, China and the U.S. are not likely to “compromise on their interests in the SCS.”

Others wearing rose-tinted glasses– like Satu Limaye, Director of East-West Center Washington– insist that US-Southeast Asian relations are –and will be–‘just fine’ and “wider and deeper on both sides than in the past two generations.”  But this is just whistling by the diplomatic graveyard.  In reality, the U.S. is discovering that its political influence in Southeast Asia is much shallower and more ephemeral than it thought.  It is clearly losing soft power in the region relative to that of China and is increasingly forced to rely on hard military power to maintain its position.

Remarkably, one of China’s leading analysts of South China Sea issues, Hu Bo, thinks that  “As the strength disparity between China and the United States is reduced, the two countries will tend to have similar concepts about rules on freedom of navigation and dispute settlement procedures.”

This is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. The U.S. currently has a significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gathering advantage over China in the South China Sea. To maintain that advantage it will continue to argue that freedom of navigation applies to its ISR probes and China will not agree to a similar concept thereof. . Also China—despite not participating– was stung by the Philippines-China arbitration result and is unlikely to submit to third party arbitration for dispute settlement.

 More towards the pessimistic side, Koh and others suggest that Vietnam as ASEAN Chair will make life politically difficult for China, thus provoking its wrath and retaliation. Specifically they think that Vietnam will make good on its threat to “bring legal actions” against China. This is highly unlikely because the decision for Vietnam’s leaders to pursue arbitration against China depends more on political than legal factors.

Even if Vietnam should ‘win’ on all points, – and that is by no means certain – the ruling cannot be enforced as we have seen with the Philippines-China arbitration result.   Most important, by ‘internationalizing’ the dispute, Vietnam will alienate its giant permanent neighbor with whom it must live into the indefinite future.

Other pundits think that under Vietnam’s chairmanship ASEAN will unite against China on Code of Conduct (COC) and South China Sea issues.  This is just wishful thinking.  As long as China has major influence in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and ASEAN proceeds by consensus, one or more of these ASEAN members will prevent consensus on these issues.

Well- known Australian expert Carlyle Thayer thinks we are likely to see a continuation of Chinese efforts to pressure South China Sea littoral states to suspend or halt the operations of foreign oil exploration vessels.  That may well happen. But China’s claims and behavior may not be as outrageous as he and others think.

They assume that China’s actions in Vietnam’s claimed EEZ and continental shelf are based on to its discredited nine-dash line claim. But China may have an UNCLOS-compatible claim to at least part of Vietnam’s claimed EEZ and continental shelf based on its claim to the Spratly feature and the Paracels.

Although these claims would be legally weak versus claims from Vietnam’s mainland, until the ownership and status of the Spratly feature and the Paracels are determined and any necessary boundaries are established, there is an area in dispute. According to the Guyana-Suriname arbitration precedent, neither country should unilaterally proceed with exploitation in such an area. This means China might argue that its request that Vietnam cease its exploitation activities there may have some legal basis.

Thayer also thinks “China will press for a speedy conclusion of the COC because ASEAN members will have less time to haggle with China over contentious issues such as the geographic scope, whether the COC will be legally binding, how disputes will be settled and how dispute settlements can be enforced, and the role of third parties.”

Previously China was accused of dragging out the negotiations so that it could establish a status quo in its favor.  Indeed,  a “speedy conclusion” does not necessarily advantage China—unless of course it incorporates its proposals to constrain the activities of the US military and its petroleum companies. That is highly unlikely because the U.S. will continue to pressure ASEAN members to protect its interests. Agreement may be delayed indefinitely and not solely because of China’s intransigence.

 In any case, ASEAN and China will not agree to a robust, binding Code of Conduct for activities there.  Issues that are very unlikely to be resolved include whether or not the area covered will include the Paracels whose sovereignty is disputed by Vietnam and China; the Code’s legal status—international treaty, agreement or guidelines; and its enforceability.  While these issues may be finessed with ambiguous language, the differences in interpretation will remain and any agreed COC will neither be binding nor robust.  The best that can be hoped for is some sort of voluntary guidelines on behavior with international opprobrium the only means of enforcement.

I am afraid I am on the pessimistic side of the spectrum. China and the U.S. are locked in a struggle for soft and hard power dominance in Southeast Asia.  The nexus of their hard power struggle is the South China Sea.  Moreover, differences that once might have been solvable by compromises between key ASEAN nations and China—including on the COC- have been swept up in the US-China soft power battle for domination of the rules based ‘international order’ for the region – – and beyond. 

Given that the fundamental forces at work are intensifying, the most likely prognosis is more of the same – but with increased tempo and tenor. The U.S. and China will continue to –in each other’s eyes–militarize Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.  As China expands its naval capabilities and the US increases its ISR probes, use of drones, and Freedom of Navigation Operations, international incidents will also increase in frequency and severity.

The contest between China and the U.S. for regional dominance will continue to sideline ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs, exposing the reality that ASEAN is not sufficiently politically and militarily unified to be “central” to the region’s security when it involves a clash between major powers. Indeed, Southeast Asian countries will be increasingly pressured to choose between the U.S. and China regarding their activities in the South China Sea.

There may be compromises between China and other claimants regarding petroleum exploration and development in disputed areas.  There may even be cooperation or coordination on environmental protection and remediation. But disputes and incidents over fisheries will continue and intensify as the stocks decrease.

More analysts and pundits will ‘discover’ the South China Sea conundrum and propose unrealistic panacea.  Some militarists will even recommend unilateral actions by the U.S. that would make the situation worse and could lead to kinetic conflict. These predictions are perhaps the safest of all.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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