It is important to note that the South China Sea (SCS) disputes are multi-dimensional and ASEAN is selectively involved in some aspects of these dimensions. There are at least four major dimensions that one can observe in the disputes. Setting the stage for the volume, Joshua Hastey and Scott N. Romaniuk, and then Romaniuk and Tobias Burgers address the major pillars of conflict and geostrategic interest in the SCS in this volume’s introductory chapters. The first dimension is about territorial sovereignty disputes among claimant parties over various land features in the South China Sea. ASEAN has stated explicitly that it does not intend to get involved in determining whose sovereignty claim is more legitimate. The second dimension has to do with the maritime area claims and maritime rights claims by the disputant parties. Although ASEAN has made it clear that it does not want to be an arbiter for maritime boundary demarcations, many of its statements do suggest that ASEAN attempts to uphold certain principles on how a claimant should legally and legitimately claim maritime zones and rights, for instance by constantly referring to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in its numerous statements.
The third dimension pertaining to the maintenance of peace and security in the SCS includes many elements. Examples include proposing rules and norms to regulate various parties’ policies, urging all claimant parties to observe the overall status quo, keeping dialogue channels open, forging maritime cooperation, strengthening confidence-building measures, and even fostering limited preventive diplomacy. It is in the third dimension that ASEAN, together with China, has played the most salient role. The fourth dimension of the SCS disputes concerns the role of other external powers, especially the United States (US), in the disputes.
Australia is not an active participant in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute and at first sight its distance from the area may give the impression of irrelevance. However, the dispute has consequences for Australia’s geopolitics in a way that is increasingly being recognized within government and the wider security community. In essence, the notion of geopolitics relates to the impact of geographic location on security and the formulation of policy, and how governments react to and devise policies towards their immediate security environment. The United States (US) may have a very clear understanding on its global geopolitics in terms of preventing one-state dominance of critical regions such as Western Europe or the Asia-Pacific region. However, because of its historical isolation, Australia’s understanding of its geopolitics has been undeveloped, though largely framed in terms of ensuring the security of its northern approaches while maintaining alliance relationships with larger powers as protection. The SCS dispute, however, has had the effect of hastening the development of that understanding of geopolitics in the various debates and discussions about Australia’s security. The SCS dispute involves China, which has been Australia’s major trading partner and contributor to its economic growth over the past decades. However, China’s regional ambitions both in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific have evoked apprehensions. Once a country that had a limited understanding of its immediate external environment, Australia has discovered that it cannot rely on its isolation, or on its alliance relationships alone to deal with this new and increasingly complicated scenario.
Russia’s behaviour in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute is a puzzling case for international relations scholars.1 On the surface, Russia’s official approach is to persuade the rival claimants and the broader international community that Russia is an extra-regional player that has no direct stakes in the SCS and, therefore, prefers not to be involved. However, behind the façade of disengagement are large-scale energy and arms deals with the major disputants. Most puzzling are Russia’s relations with China and Vietnam – the two major rival parties in the SCS and, simultaneously, Russia’s closest and most important Asian partners.
Most of the existing assessments interpret Russia-China-Vietnam relations in zero-sum terms. Thus, the strengthening of the Russia-Vietnam partnership is presented as a means for Russia to contain or balance the alleged Chinese threat.2 According to this narrative, Russia worries about overdependence upon an increasingly influential China and tries to arm or conclude economic deals with Vietnam and other actual or potential adversaries of China in the SCS and in Asia more broadly. The other side of such an interpretation is based on the evidence of a growing military entente between China and Russia and pictures Russia as siding with China at the cost of relations with other regional partners, including Vietnam, particularly after the Ukraine Crisis. According to this story, as a China-Russia strategic alignment grows, Russia is likely to snub those of its partners who are at odds with China.3
The South China Sea (SCS) has become the setting of one of the most intensive territorial and resource disputes in history. A myriad of small and medium states, together with the two greatest economic and military powers in the contemporary period, have laid claim to and contest states’ alternative claims to large sections of the SCS. China, as a revisionist power, has made the most sweeping claim of all states, designating nearly the entire sea as its own. In addition to its extensive resources, the SCS is a vital strategic waterway and a strategic locale critical for future power projection by existing great and rising powers. This chapter unpacks the central components of the conflict in the SCS that has been steadily intensifying since states began staking claims over islands and zones within the SCS in the 1970s. In doing so, we refer to the SCS as a “system of systems” involving multi-dimensional security overlay based on political, economic, and military interests as well as power projections. We argue that the central challenge facing would-be defenders of the status quo is their decentralized organization, with the US, the Philippines, and Vietnam intersecting in various subsystems though not forming a cohesive cooperative security system with a unified, cohesive purpose. Concurrently, China has seen much more success in marshalling a coherent, focused (Sinocentrist) stratagem for its salami-slicing approach in the region, much to the detriment of the region’s status quo actors, even in spite of internal competition and rivalry regarding China’s grand strategy and geopolitical trajectory as a state.
Despite being the world’s fifth largest economy when measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP),2 having the sixth largest military budget,3 being a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), and member of, inter alia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the G7, the United Kingdom (UK) is facing a period of deep uncertainty. This uncertainty is in part borne out of “Brexit,” but equally significantly is borne out of a requirement, amid decreasing economic and military power, to redefine its role in the world and adapt to the changing geopolitical, economic and military landscape – a landscape that potentially has Asia as its fulcrum and Southeast Asia at its heart.4
The UK economy is dominated by the service sector that accounts for 80 per cent of GDP5 and as such the UK is heavily reliant on trade to satisfy the needs of its citizens and businesses. This trade is in part facilitated by the UK’s “Red Ensign”6 merchant navy fleet, which is the tenth largest in the world,7 and the Royal Navy, which is widely considered to be one of the top five most powerful navies,8 yet both had been in decline until recently, numerically in terms of ship numbers and also in terms of influence.9 This decline is not without consequence, most acutely in respect of the Royal Navy’s ability to deploy globally and simultaneously to various areas of operation.
The South China Sea has once again become a flashpoint for conflict between China and some ASEAN states, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. It has also strained relations between China and the United States (US). China’s recent position of growing more assertive in advancing its claims has raised tensions and risked the militarization of competing claims by other states including the US and its allies. The diplomatic impasse between China and the ASEAN claimant states, as well as within ASEAN has, furthermore, made the situation less predictable. Worse still, taking advantage of a world distracted by the current coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic, China took new and bolder actions, as evidenced through its declaration of the establishment of two new administrative districts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.1
China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea has put ASEAN states, other actors, and Cambodia in a challenging strategic situation, seeking to balance with China and the US to further their strategic interests. Cambodia has decided to adopt a different policy approach from its ASEAN member states regarding China and the US. Some other states in the region chose to have engaged in a balanced strategy (that is, hedging or neutral) with both superpowers in order to gain benefits from both sides: economic interests from China and security interests from the US. In contrast, Cambodia has pursued a strategy of bandwagoning towards China to accrue economic interests.2
The South China Sea (SCS) is at the strategic crossroads connecting Northeast and Southeast Asia on one hand and the Pacific and the Indian Ocean on the other. China is one of the countries bordering the SCS. China also claims sovereignty over four archipelagos in the SCS, including the Spratlys and Paracels (which China refers to as the Nansha and Xisha Islands respectively). Some of the claims are currently contested to different extents by other coastal states of the SCS.
According to official statistics from China, a total of 42 Spratly features have been successively occupied by other countries.1 In January 1974, as the result of a military clash at sea, China gained effective control over the entirety of the Paracels by defeating South Vietnamese troops stationed on some of the features. In March 1988, China again took control of six features of the Spratlys after a naval conflict with Vietnam. In 1994, China built facilities on Mischief Reef (Meiji Jiao) of the Spratlys, followed by protests from the Philippines.
With regard to China’s maritime rights and jurisdiction in the SCS, China claims that, under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf in this area, where China also claims historical rights. China’s maritime claims in the SCS also overlap with those of other coastal states.
The South China Sea (SCS) is one of the most geostrategically contested maritime spaces. The long-standing overlapping territorial disputes among claimants including Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam are complicated by the added element of US-Sino relations and their respective policies and strategies. China’s emergence as a major economic power, the growth in military spending by Asian countries led by China, and the increasing attention by European nations in the SCS present a volatile mix that provides opportunities as well as posing threats to be negotiated. The almost 4 million square kilometres of the SCS provides regional states and the international community with a strategically important maritime highway for the transportation of goods and energy supplies, and forms a critical link between trading hubs and ports in Europe, South and Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia.1 The SCS figures prominently as a link in the management of the world’s energy supply network of marine routes that facilitate the economic, commercial, and strategic interests of many nations.2
Apart from shipping, the SCS also forms a large portion of the area where international communication traffic is routed to facilitate commerce and other activities so essential for the world today. The use of the sea for these purposes must be well managed to check any untoward impact on the environment, marine biodiversity, and ecosystems. There is much need for prudent conservation and protection of these systems to ensure sustainable management and use of the sea and its resources.
This volume has provided a broad assessment by experts of the complex political and security challenges that arise from highly divergent national views on the South China Sea (SCS). But it is evident that there is no consensus among the claimant states regarding the future of the SCS, nor among external stakeholders. This volume will most certainly not be the last word on a dispute that has endured decades, and that is likely to stretch deep into the 21st century without a comprehensive settlement or resolution.
From the defeat of the Empire of Japan by the United States (US) and its wartime allies in 1945 until the 1974 expulsion of Vietnamese armed forces from the Paracels, the SCS was a peripheral international issue in a world dominated by the security challenges of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. As noted by John Callahan in Chapter 12, the US Navy (USN) was largely unchallenged in the SCS waters, while China possessed only a modest coastal naval force.
The rise in Chinese economic power allowed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to devote funding to building a blue-water navy and, through massive dredging operations, to expand islets or to create islands from atolls or rocky outcrops of the sea, and to build on these features extensive naval, coast guard, and air force installations. However, as noted by Stein Tønnesson in the Foreword, none of the other SCS claimant states possess the means to compete successfully with China in terms of military capacity.