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Cross-National Perspectives

This volume brings together international experts to provide fresh perspectives on geopolitical concerns in the South China Sea.

The book considers the interests and security strategies of each of the nations with a claim to ownership and jurisdiction in the Sea. Examining contexts including the region’s natural resources and China’s behaviour, the book also assesses the motivations and approaches of other states in Asia and further afield.

This is an accessible, even-handed and comprehensive examination of current and future rivalries and challenges in one of the most strategically important and militarized maritime regions of the world.

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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.

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The South China Sea (SCS) has long been one of the primary security interests of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC, hereafter China).1 As early as 1958, through its “Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on China’s Territorial Sea,” China claimed parts of the SCS through the infamous nine-dash line.2 Throughout the ensuing decades, mostly minor hostilities occurred and China was unable to increase its power in the waters significantly. Instead, the SCS was something of a phoney, mainly diplomatic, conflict that only occasionally turned violent. The region featured conflicts based on limited escalation, though with significant pressure-potential for all actors engaged. However, over the past decade-and-a-half, foremost under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has sought to abandon Deng’s mantle of “hiding its strength and biding its time.” China has, in the SCS at least, since 2009 when it declared its sovereignty over the seas, embarked on a tour de force, seeking political, economic, and military control over the strategic waterway.3 China has been sought to achieve these goals almost entirely through the application “salami-slicing.” Now widely applied by the Chinese military, paramilitary, and civil actors, salami-slicing is a “strategy that employs a series of incremental actions, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in China’s favor.”4 The SCS has remained a hotbed of this strategy and can be considered one, if not the core, area in which China has employed this approach the longest, most consistently, and efficiently.

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The South China Sea (SCS) – a semi-enclosed sea1– is one of the world’s key shipping routes and richest fishing grounds. Shared by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines, the SCS also sees one third of global trade pass through its waters.2 The SCS is also known for its high economic value. It is rich with high value marine life, particularly demersal fish and tuna, and significant deposits of hydrocarbons trapped beneath the Kalayaan Island Group’s (KIG) seabed. The overarching maritime dispute in this highly strategic locale involves six claimant states including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, with China representing the strongest of these countries in terms of its military capabilities. Although Indonesia is not a claimant state, as one of the coastal states of the SCS Indonesia has played and will almost certainly continue to occupy a central role in efforts to manage the conflict. Through its ongoing efforts to diffuse the conflict, Indonesia has engaged parties to the disputes primarily through the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group3 on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea4 and the Track 2 approach, namely the Workshop on Managing Potential Conflict in the South China Sea5 that Jakarta has organized since 1990.

In recent years the development of the multi-faceted dispute in SCS has raised serious concern among states about the potential escalation of the conflict, with experts assessing the possibility and probability that the dispute could turn into a hot war.

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The South China Sea (SCS) dispute is regarded as the most complex and challenging ocean-related regional conflict in East Asia. The security in the SCS is a concern for both the regional countries (for example, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei) and extra-regional countries (for example, the United States (US), Russia, Australia, India, and Japan), among others, due to their strategic and economic interests in this region. While many contend that competition and disputes over the region are principally concerned with its natural resources, others argue that the essence of the dispute is oriented toward China’s expanding power and challenge to the status quo position of the US and its hegemonic power, though China has moved against other states in the region to enhance its own strategic position overall, amplifying existing tensions over the region’s riches and bring states closer to conflict. China, often characterized as a revisionist power, however, is not the only state to project its intentions to defend its interests in the region. Among other states, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam also exhibit provocative pursuits and competing interests, potentially imperilling prospects for peace and dispute resolution as well as raising concerns about the increase of military confrontation between states.

State policies, driven in part by revisionist behaviour, have been formulated and implemented not only to support major geographic claims and politico-military positions but also to contain the growing military and economic power – notably that of China – and interests of competing states in the region.

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