What Will (And Will Not) Likely Happen In The South China Sea – OpEd


I am not trying to be a Nostradamus. But after some 45 years of analyzing South China Sea issues and developments, I have concluded that there are some things that will – and will not – – likely happen in the foreseeable future, and I think I understand why.

First some context. In the mid-1970s when I first began following and analyzing South China Sea issues, they were a relatively geopolitically isolated and rather esoteric set of disputes over ownership of fly specks on a map.  They were not major security concerns for the claimants nor for outside maritime powers like the U.S.   They could have been managed by a self-restraint pact among the claimants.

However, over the ensuing decades as nations become more aware of the potential petroleum and fisheries resources in the South China Sea and the possibility that these fly specks might be entitled to 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones(EEZs), their claims became an integral part of their national security as well as their national identity.  All coastal countries extended their resource jurisdiction out to 200 nm and even beyond from their declared sometimes excessive baselines and China trumped them all by reviving and insisting on its nine-dash historic claim.

This is when the U.S.  became directly involved because it feared that China would limit freedom of navigation in the sweeping area that it claimed —including for its naval and air assets.  Unfortunately, the Hague arbitration ruling that discredited China’s historic claim and declared that these legal rocks are not entitled to EEZs or continental shelves did little to mitigate the disputes. China refused to recognize the outcome and anyway it only apples directly to China and the Philippines who brought the case to the tribunal. Despite warnings from many– including myself –these issues became intertwined with the burgeoning US-China hard and soft power struggle for control of the South China Sea and the region. Indeed, the outcome of this struggle will be a major factor in determining the region’s political future. This is the current context of the South China Sea issues.

 Here is what will likely not happen in the South China Sea.

1.     China will not explicitly abandon its nine-dash line historic claim to territory, maritime space and resources there.  By convincing its populace that the area has been part of the “motherland” since ancient times and implementing that concept in domestic law, China’s leadership has made it almost impossible to explicitly relinquish this claim.  To do so would delegitimize the government and the Communist Party.  However, implicit recognition of the Hague arbitration result may be possible through de facto recognition of others’ ownership by actions including accepting a minority share in joint development arrangements with other claimants to the area.

2.     The sovereignty disputes over the legal rocks will not be resolved.   No government including that of China can surrender its sovereignty without losing its legitimacy. However, all the claims have weaknesses in modern international law which requires continuous, effective administration and control as well as acquiescence by other claimants.   Eventually mutual demilitarization and co-ordinated environmental protection may be possible. 

3.     ASEAN and China will not agree to a robust, binding Code of Conduct for activities there.  Issues that are irresolvable include whether or not the area covered will include the Paracels; 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 the Code will not be binding or robust.  The best that can be hoped for is some sort of voluntary guidelines on behavior with international opprobrium the only means of enforcement.

4.     The U.S. will not stop meddling in relations between China and ASEAN countries, including negotiations on a Code of Conduct.

Even if the U.S. withdraws or reduces its military presence in the Sea– which is highly unlikely – the soft power struggle will continue.  The U.S. has simply invested too much in terms of blood, treasure and credibility to leave the area all together.  Moreover, its meddling in the negotiations of a COC is an integral part of its attempt to prevent China’s soft power regional dominance and US exclusion from the political issues that arise therefrom.

5.     The U.S. will not cease its provocative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions targeting China’s coastal military assets, including its nuclear submarines. The U.S. maintains a significant ISR technological superiority over China.  Unless and until China achieves ISR parity vis a vis the U.S., the U.S. will not yield this advantage by a unilateral or negotiated step back. 

Moreover, China’s retaliatory nuclear deterrence is its nuclear armed and powered submarines and the first of them are now based in Yulin in Hainan.  The U.S. wants to deny China a retaliatory strike by monitoring tracking, and if necessary, targeting this capability  Much of its ISR in the South China Sea is devoted to this effort and is highly unlikely to be reduced.

6.     China and Southeast Asian countries will not bring their claims into conformity with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Although all but Cambodia have ratified UNCLOS, all have claims that do not conform with it such as excessive or improper straight baselines or the requirement of prior permission for foreign warships to enter their territorial sea or even their Exclusive Economic Zone.    Each has national security reasons for maintaining these claims and thus are not likely to rescind them despite pressure from maritime powers like the U.S. to do so.

What is likely to happen?

1.     The U.S. and China will continue to militarize Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.  As China expands its naval capabilities and US military probes increase in frequency and intensity, international incidents will also increase in frequency and severity. Southeast Asian security and stability will decrease.

2.     ASEAN and its centrality in security affairs will continue to be sidelined.  The contest between China and the U.S. for dominance has exposed the reality that ASEAN is not sufficiently politically and militarily unified to be “central” to the region’s security when it is threatened by a clash between major powers.

3.     Southeast Asian countries will be increasingly pressured to choose between the U.S. and China regarding their activities in the South China Sea.

4.     There will be compromises between China and other claimants regarding petroleum exploration and development in disputed areas.  The agreement for joint development between China and the Philippines – if agreed and implemented – may break the ice and be followed by others. Disputes and incidents over fisheries will continue and intensify as the stocks decrease.

5.     More analysts and pundits will ‘discover’ the vast panoply of South China Sea issues and propose unrealistic panacea.  Some will recommend unilateral actions by the U.S. that would make the situation worse and could lead to kinetic conflict. This is the safest prediction of all.

A version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3027616/us-china-rivalry-hots-what-does-future-hold-southeast-asian

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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