The South China Sea: Likely Outcomes – Analysis


By Teshu Singh

Recently Barak Obama demanded that China should “play by the rules” in international trade and “act like a grown up” vis-a-vis the South China Sea (SCS). This leaves the observers in a state of perplexity as to what would be the likely scenario in the region. This article explores four likely scenarios in the region based interviews with maritime experts and media survey.

Scenario I – If China continues giving baffling statements

South China Sea
South China Sea

China claims the SCS on historical grounds and is the main claimant in the dispute. It has been very careful about not clearly stating its position on the region. Chinese official have been talking about this region as their ‘core interest’ at different occasions (China Daily, 2 August 2010). China has been changing statements on the issue, “China understands the national interest and welcomes the maritime claims of powers like the US (China Daily, 1 August 2011). Recently, it said “there are no international waters in the SCS and that China should act with strength to repel US interference in the contested area”, (Taipei Times, 29 November 2011). This was again reiterated in an article by a Professor Pan Guoping, which states “There is no international water within the SCS”. Such inexplicable claims from China will further complicate the situation making it a zone of anarchy.

Scenario II – If China tries to push for a Bilateral Solution

China is firm on solving the issue bilaterally. But ASEAN countries are reluctant to solve the issue bilaterally because it may be in Beijing’s favour due to its political and economic clout. China has entered into an agreement with Vietnam “Agreement on Basic Principles Guiding the settlement of Maritime Issue between China and Vietnam” which shows a step forward by both sides because amongst all the dispute in the SCS China-Vietnam is the most significant one. (People’s Daily, 17 October 2011). This agreement has laid a political ground on which both sides can hold dialogues and consultations to address the bilateral dispute. And if they can resolve maritime disputes through bilateral dialogues it will set precedence for other countries. However, this deal was opposed by the Philippines (18 October 2011, People’s Daily).

Further China insists that the SCS is a complicated and sensitive issue and based on international experiences, this kind of dispute should be resolved bilaterally between the countries directly involved. Moreover it stated that the parties involved have the wisdom to solve the dispute on their own and there is no need for external forces to intervene; outside intervention will further complicate the issue (22 November 2011, People’s Daily).

Scenario III – If ASEAN becomes assertive for a Code of Conduct/Multilateral Solution

According to Srikanth Kondapalli (Professor, Chinese Studies, JNU), since there are many countries involved in the dispute so there can be no one solution. All these countries have their own allies so there can be no bilateral solution there has to be a multilateral solution and a code of conduct. He further opines that there is a lot of frustration among the ASEAN states regarding the non-binding nature of Declaration of Code of Conduct 2002. Vijay Sakhuja (Director Research, ICWA) further suggests that these regional countries can think of joint development for the purpose of resource sharing which could either be bilateral or multilateral (China-Vietnam, China Vietnam-Philippines). Recently ASEAN states have started building their political and military clout. The Philippines has already started following a confrontationist policy by calling part of the SCS as the ‘West Philippines Sea.”

Scenario IV – Increasing US Assertiveness

Previously, Lyle Goldstein stated if US leaders take note of his advice, they should shed most commitments in Southeast Asia, which he portrays as a region of small importance situated adjacent to an increasingly powerful China, (Xinhua, 21 November 2011). Today the US is a major external power in the region especially after Barack Obama emphasized its “Return to Asia” strategy and further made it clear that America is “here to stay” as a pacific power. Also they are interested in the freedom of navigation at this critical juncture. Robert Kaplan in his article “The SCS is the future of conflict” has outlined that the SCS will be the convergent point between the US and China. On stationing of 2500 mariners in Australia, China has directly cautioned Australia not to allow the US to use its bases to harm China and that it can risk getting “caught in the cross fire”. Thus the US presence can further provoke the already existing disagreements. (Global times, 16 November 2011)

It can be inferred that there will be no major upheaval. There may be political disorder in the worst scenario. Negotiations are difficult to reach but there are many political and diplomatic tools to avert any anomaly in the region. Further as a fast growing economy China offers an immense economic growth potential to the ASEAN states. The forth coming trilateral official level dialogue with Japanese, Indian and the US diplomats on 19 December 2011 and the meeting on Code of Conduct in January 2012, between China-ASEAN will be decisive in determining the future of the SCS.

Teshu Singh
Research Officer, CRP
email:[email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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