The Asia-Pacific region witnessed intense diplomatic upheavals over the South China Sea issue last year. Both continuity and change formed the bedrock of such developments in the dispute involving China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian countries. While China carried on regardless of protests from the Philippines and Vietnam, Indonesia threw its hat in the ring by making several statements on Chinese assertive postures. To calm its allies, the US stepped up its presence, while Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made significant strides in building strategic partnerships with the Philippines and Vietnam.
The flaring up of the South China Sea dispute was demonstrated during the Asean Defence Ministers (ADMM) Plus meeting in Kuala Lumpur in November 2015, involving both the US and China, which failed to issue a joint declaration. The episode was close on the heels of China’s refusal to participate in the proceedings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea, asserting that the artificial islands are part of its sovereign territory. The PCA awarded the first decision in favour of the Philippines.
By sending USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of the Subi artificial island, the US also showed it’s still the predominant power in the region, and not pleased with Chinese activities. As expected, China reacted sharply, though only diplomatically. Apparently, US officials have also made it clear such naval visits are likely to happen in future, depending on the necessity.
These developments may also be seen in the context of Beijing’s construction of two lighthouses on the Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands, completed in mid-October 2015. The lighthouse is China’s master-stroke. Sooner or later, every passing ship may have to recognise their existence, at least in distress, leading to the automatic acceptance that the lighthouses and the land they are built on belong to China.
China has already reclaimed 2,31,000 square metres of land in the Cuarteron Reef, and is also accused of building an airstrip on the Johnson South Reef. It might use some of these artificial islands for military purposes by building airstrips and long-range radar systems. Of the seven reefs it claims, four used to get submerged under high tide before the reclamation. Thus, Beijing’s claims would fall flat in terms of verifiability in the international court.
While Chinese efforts to strengthen sovereignty claims are becoming regular, Beijing refuses to entertain protests by other disputants. Official diplomatic channels, and even President Xi Jinping, have made statements not in sync with reality. During his US visit in September 2015, Xi said, “China has no intention to militarise the South China Sea”.
Officially, China maintains it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly islands, but still doesn’t aim to alter the status quo. While recent developments indicate China’s hardening approach, it’s still marked by restraint. Intriguingly, while no claimant supports the use of force, they are not ready to make compromises on territorial claims. The dispute has crippled the Asean, and the much discussed binding Code of Conduct (CoC) also seems a remote possibility, considering that the onus lies on China in making the CoC a reality.
The inability of disputants to deter China is pushing them towards extra-regional powers, such as the US, India, Japan and Australia, which have put diplomatic pressure on China. Japan and India’s increasing presence in the Southeast Asian region concerns Beijing. Notwithstanding the simultaneous India-China joint military exercise in Kunming, China reacted negatively to the “Malabar Exercise” in mid-October, involving Japan, the US and India.
Taking recourse to international organisations is the latest strategy by small powers, with the Philippines filing a case in The Hague. China’s prime objective is to expand its control over the seas to the fullest possible, so that even if Philippines wins the case, the final position taken is on the basis of “actual control” and not the “ideal position” based on “verifiable historical claims”. Evidently, this possible shift is causing more anxiety in Southeast Asia.
The immediate goal for the US and Southeast Asia should be to ensure land reclamation activities are halted. Pressuring China for a discussion, as well as consensus, should be the priority. The discussion on a binding CoC should be expeditiously pursued. In 2016, the international community will be keenly watching to what extent these objectives are pursued.