MARITIME TERRITORIAL DISPUTES IN
THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
LIBERALISM (INTERNATIONAL LAW)
Paper presented at the Moscow International Security Conference
23-25 April, 2019
Dr Arujunan Narayanan
International Movement for a Just World
MARITIME TERRITORIAL DISPUTE IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA: REALISM (POWER) (REALISM) Vs LIBERALISM (INTERNATIONAL LAW) AND THE CHOICE.
The maritime territorial dispute in the South China Sea is a potential flashpoint involving China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and recently Indonesia. However, China’s more assertive military actions in the South China Sea and the construction of artificial islands with military facilities has changed the situation on two aspects. On one side, the Southeast Asian claimant states found themselves helpless in opposing China. Secondly the issue has assumed a different character in the context of the US-China rivalry in the Asia-Pacific where the US is challenging China’s sovereignty by sending its military forces to those areas which China regards as its sovereign territories. With the increasing rivalry between the US and China, given their comparatively weak position, the Southeast Asian states are hedging between these two great powers for their national survival, The US allies Japan, South Korea, Australia are dragged into it, Other states such as India, United Kingdom and France too might be pulled in..
We can see the reality of power politics. All the states are using both military power (realism) and diplomacy (liberalism) to protect and to promote their national interest. As history of International Relations shows when the conflict become more serious, power dominates over diplomacy and that can be seen in the current power struggle in the South China Sea between the US and China. The small states with less power have become less significant. It looks as if the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea with an area of some 648,000 square miles. It is bounded by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The area include hundreds of small islands, reefs and rocks. Most of them are partially submerged features, little more than shipping hazards and inhospitable. Most of these islands are not arable, do not support permanent crops, have no meadows, pastures or forests.
It became an area of great importance for all these states when the UN led survey concluded that oil reserves would be likely found in the East and South China Seas. With the need for energy for China’s grandiose development and the drying up of its land based oil resources, China moved to occupy the features in the South China Sea. Besides, the UNCLOS 1982 that provided for the sovereign territorial rights of the coastal states that urged them to occupy the features in the South China Sea. The race among these states for the occupation of those features has made the South China Sea a potential flashpoint in the 21st century.
The Significance of the South China Sea
The South China Sea is not only important for the coastal states but also important for the economic and military powers in the Indo-Pacific region.
(i) Sea Lane of Communication
The SCS provides important maritime communication routes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, most notably for the energy supply from the Gulf of Arabia to the economic powerhouses of Northeast Asia. An estimate of US$5.3 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually. Hence, many regional states want the South China Sea to remain as international waters.
(ii) Strategic Highway of the Regional Military Powers
It is also an important strategic waterway for all the major military powers that project their military power to protect their vital interest in the region. The US 7th Indo-Pacific Fleet passes through the SCS to go to the Indian Ocean. To promote this, several states, including the US, conduct “freedom of Navigation” operations which is not well received by the PRC as it considers the South China Sea within the nine-dotted line as its sovereign territory and other countries must seek its approval before entering the South China Sea. This is not acceptable to other powers as they feel it is contrary to what is provided in UNCLOS 1982.
(iii) Natural Resources
The South China Sea is rich in oil, natural gas, minerals and fishery. The oil and natural gas reserves in the Spratly region are estimated at 17.7 billion tons, even larger than Kuwait’s reserves of 13 billion tons.
There are five main island groups in the SCS, none of which is the natural geographic extension of any coastal state’s continental shelf. These groups are the objects of serious jurisdiction contention between the coastal states.
(a) Pratas Islands
It is located in the northern part of the South China Sea. It is occupied by Taiwan and challenged by China on the ground of its legitimacy. It is not a serious security issue at the moment. In the event of a clash between China and Taiwan, the Pratas islands will assume strategic significance.
(b) Macclesfield Bank
It is located north of the Spratly Islands southeast of the Paracels. It is permanently submerged and the issue of control has not yet arisen.
(c) Paracel Islands
The Paracel Islands are located in the north and it is currently occupied by the PRC after evicting Vietnam in 1974 after a military clash. Currently the PRC’s occupation is contested by Vietnam and Taiwan. The issue between Taiwan and the question of governmental legitimacy and not one of sovereignty.
(d) Spratly Islands
This is the most contested archipelago. There are as total of 53 features comprising many islands, reefs, shoals, and sand banks which spread from the very centre of the sea. There are six claimant states, namely the PRC, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Vietnam claims all the features and is based on history as the former colony of France as well as a party to the UNCLOS 1982. Currently Vietnam occupies the largest number of features in the SCS – 6 islands and 27 reefs and banks: Southwest Cay, South Reef, sand Cay, Petley Reef, Sand Cay, Namyit Island, Discovery Great Reef, Sin Cowe Island, Sin Cowe East Island, Collins Reef, Landsdowne Reef, Pigeon Reef, Cornwallis South Reef, Alison Reef, East London Reef, West London Reef, Central London Reef, Spratly Island, Ladd Reef, Prince Wales Bank, Barque Canada Bank, Amboyna Cay, Bombay Castle, Alexandra Bank, Prince Consort Bank, Grainger Bank and Vanguard Bank.
(ii) Peoples’ Republic of China
PRC claim the whole archipelago and the claim is based on historical rights with the “Nine-Dash Line”.
In 2014, China began to implement a master plan to expand and consolidate its presence in the SCS. Currently China occupies eight reefs in the Spratly Islands: Subi Reef, Gaven Reef,South Johnston Reef, Union Reef, Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Hughes Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Eldad Reef and built artificial island fortresses in the international waters.
(iii) The Philippines
Philippines claim is based on discovery and UNCLOS 1982. It occupies eight reefs and islands in the Spratlys – the North Danger Reef, Thitu Island, West York Island, Flat Island, Nanshan Island, Lankian Cay, Loaita Island and Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippines constructed support building on four features and cleared a road through the Thitu Island in 2013.
Malaysia’s claim is based on its 1979 map and as a party to UNCLOS 1982. It occupies eight features in the South China Sea: the Commadore Reef, Investigator Shoal, Erica Reef, Marveles Reef, Dallas Reef, Ardasier Reef, Swallow Reef, Louisa Reef. In the 1980s the Royal Malaysian Navy occupied the Swallow Reef and set up a naval station reportedly protected by anti-ship guns and Starburst surface-to-air missile. The reef had a 1.3km concrete airstrip, hangars and an air-traffic-control tower.
In 1956 Taiwan occupied Itu Aba island, the largest feature and one smaller feature in the Spratly Islands and garrisoned with hundreds of troops. It is administered by the Taiwan Coast Guard whose personnel replaced regular soldiers there in 2000. The island is protected by machine guns, 81mm and 210mm mortars, and 40mm anti-aircraft guns, and has a 1.1km-long runway and limited port facilities. Taiwan has installed solar rays on Itu Aba in 2013 and in 2014 began constructing a new pier and new buildings. On completion the island to have a port capable of accommodating 3,000 tonne naval frigates as well as coast-guard cutters. The runway also lengthened to allow its use by C-130 transport aircraft. According to Taipeh, Itu Aba will continue to serve as a support base for Taiwanese deep-sea fishermen and marine and mineral research. To date, there is no military clash between China and Taiwan in the South China Sea.
Brunei claims only the EEZ.
(e) Natuna Islands
The Natuna Islands are a group of 272 islands located in the South China Sea. It is one of the largest natural gas fields in the world and believed to contain over 210 trillion cubic feet of natural gas with an estimated forty-six trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. Indonesian sovereignty over the islands was unchallenged until 1993, when the PRC published a map containing the nine-dash line.
International Relations in the Indo-Pacific
The rise of China as an economic power and military power with the potential to replace the US as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific has led to a US policy of engagement and containment. The Obama Presidency adopted an economic isolation of China through the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the military containment through the ‘pivot policy’ under which the US redeployed its military forces to the Asia-Pacific. The US military allies in the Asia-Pacific region are Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Australia are friendly countries. The US encouragement for Japan to play more effective defensive role in Northeast Asia, the deployment of THAAD Missiles to South Korea and the presence of US aircraft carries and other naval crafts in the East China Sea and the joint naval military exercises with Australia, Japan, India and others have added more fear to China. To this perceived threat, China responded with the expansion of its naval forces and other military capabilities including the militarization of its islands in the South China Sea. China also came out with its two chain defence of its maritime territories in the Asia-Pacific. Besides it came with the Belt and Road Initiative and financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. With these initiatives China is expanding its influence not only in the Asia-Pacific region but also in Central Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and South Pacific. The US looks upon China as an arising new power bend to replace it soon.
China’s Strategy in South China Sea
An analysis of China’s policy shows that it uses military power and diplomacy to solve the problems and to promote its interest. From the very beginning China is very clear in its strategy towards the South China Sea. It had announced that the South China Sea is China’s area of core interest along with Taiwan, Tibet and the Xinxiang provinces and China is ready to go to war to protect its territories if forced to.
In 1974, China seized the Paracels from Vietnam. In 1979, China removed six Spratly atolls from Vietnam’s possession. In 1988, the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed at Johnson Reef in the Spratlys. Several Vietnamese boats were sunk and over 70 sailors were killed. In 1994, China and Vietnam had naval confrontation over Vietnam’s Tu Chinh oil exploration blocks 133, 134 and 135.
In 2011, on two separate occasions in 2011, Chinese government vessels cut the cables of survey equipment operated by the Vietnamese ships within Vietnam’s EEZ. In 2012, China took control of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines In 2013, the PLA Navy vessel fired flares into a Vietnamese fishing boat, causing fire onboard. In 2014, the Chinese moved a floating oil-drilling platform into the waters near the Paracel Islands (claimed both by Vietnam and China) followed by Chinese vessels ramming the Vietnamese boats that gathered in protest, resulting in the sinking of one of them and damage to others. On 4th April 2019, China had confrontation with the Philippines in the Thitu Island. The Chines fishing fleets and Coast Guards are found in Malaysia’s territorial waters and Malaysia unable to do anything. Brunei is too small to face China and has no confrontation with China over its maritime rights in the South China Sea.
In 2014, China began to implement a master plan to expand and consolidate its presence in the South China Sea. It transformed the seven small rocks and low tide elevations that it occupied into artificial islands. In the space of 18 months, Chinese vessels dredged and pumped sand from the seabed and corals ripped out of nearby reefs until these features encompassed an area of 3,000 acres (12 square kilometres). For comparison, other claimants in the South China Sea – Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – expanded the area of the features they already occupied by only 100 acres (0.4 sq km) over 45 years.
Within eight months during 2015, China transformed Fiery Cross Reef into a 2.65 sq km artificial island. It is now the largest feature in the Spratly Islands. The infrastructure on this reef include sea walls, concrete roads, military barracks, a multi-level tower, helipads, a harbour, and an airfield and an early warning radar. The harbor could accommodate the PLAN’s larger warships, such as Type -071 LPDs.
China also undertaken major construction projects on features throughout the sea, building outposts on seven different features in the Spratly Islands. By June 2015, China had reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land, compared to Vietnam’s 80, Malaysia’s 70, the Philippines’14 and Taiwan’s 8.
Given the meteoric economic rise of China and its military modernization, the Obama Administration announced the policy of ‘rebalancing’ towards the Asia-Pacific. It deployed its military forces to Australia while mobilizing its other military forces in the Asia- Pacific.
In May 2015, the US sent a surveillance aircraft over the Fiery Cross Reef. The American pilot ignored repeated demands by the Chinese forces that the aircraft leave the area. China’s Foreign Ministry called the confrontation “irresponsible and dangerous”. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter replied, “There should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world”.
In May 2015, the US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter told in Hawaii that the unilateral ‘land reclamation and militarization was a new development and the US would oppose ‘any further militarization’ of the disputed islands.
On 30th May, Carter during the IISS Shangr-La Dialogue said,
‘The United States is deeply concerned about the
pace and scope of land reclamation in the South
China Sea, the prospect of further militarization,
as well as the potential for these activities to increase
the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant
states. As a Pacific nation, a trading and member of the
international community, the United States has every right
to be involved and concerned’.
The US Navy has also forcefully asserted its right to freedom of navigation in South China Sea, by sailing repeatedly close to the man-made islands.
Despite some claim that the Donald Trump presidency has relegated the SCS dispute to a lesser status compared to the Trade War and the North Korean nuclear issue, there was increasing military reaction to China in the South China Sea. In 2018, the US military significantly increased the frequency and intensity of its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) which is about once in every eight weeks on average within the 12 nautical miles where the Chinese stations on islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands, the US military often conducted high-speed maneuvers, exercise training and other provocative activities. Besides, the US military also strengthened its provocations in the Paracels. On May 27, two US war ships, the USS Antietam and USS Higgins entered China’s territorial waters in the Paracels and conducted large-scale maneuvering near the Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody Islands. The US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) headquarters have had more freedom to conduct these operations. The US has not recognize Chinese title to the features, it is not obliged to observe requirements of a theoretical territorial sea.
Besides the FONOPs, the US military has also significantly intensified its strategic deterrence and forward presence. In 2018, the US Navy sent four carrier strike groups, four amphibious ready groups, several nuclear attack submarines, and 30 sorties of B-52 bombers to conduct strategic deterrent activities in the SCS and surrounding areas. The F-22 and F-35 fighters, represented by the fifth-generation jet fighters, have also been deployed around the South China Sea.
In February 2018, Harry Binkley Harris, Jr., the then Commander of USINDOCOM testified in the Congress that “Beijing’s ‘intent is crystal clear’ to dominate the South China Sea and America must prepare for the possibility of war with China”. On 26th April 2018, Philip Davidson, Harris’s successor, stated at the review hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States”. On 6th February 2019, John M. Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, noted in a speech at Atlantic Council that the US may need to look for ways to impose consequences if the rules specified in the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea are not followed by China. In an atmosphere of war preparation and show of toughness, the US military will continue intensifying military operations in the SCS. In 2018, the Congress issued the SEC.1262 of National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 requiring the Department of Defence to provide regular briefing on any significant activity conducted by the PRC in the South China Sea, including reclamation, assertion of an excessive territorial claim, or militarization activities such as significant military deployment or operation or infrastructure construction. SEC. 1259 stipulated that the DoD shall not enable or facilitate the participation of the PRC in any Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises unless, “China has ceased all land reclamation activities in the South China Sea; removed all weapons from its land reclamation sites; and established a consistent four-year track record of taking actions toward stabilizing the region.
Other External Powers
With the involvement of the US in this dispute other US allies and friendly states with their interest in the South China Sea will be dragged into the conflict. Japan, Australia, UK and India with US have been involved in joint military exercises in the South China Sea. In August 2018, a British war ship carried out freedom of navigation patrol near the Paracels. French Navy ships conducted patrol in May near the Spratly Islands. Some have extended military assistance to the claimant states. Japan has provided naval vessels to Vietnam and the Philippines. India has sold military weapons to Vietnam. The US has lifted the sale of military weapons to Vietnam.
UK has shown interest in the South China Sea with stronger presence and it recently send an aircraft carrier and there were reports that it may establish a military base in Southeast Asia. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, formulated by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations passed in December, 2018 specified that in future, the US shall strengthen joint maritime military training and FON plans with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea and East China Sea. The US military has conducted thousands of close reconnaissance and hundreds of military exercises, with a steady US presence in the region for more than 700 ship days every year. A total of 70% of military strength of the Pacific Fleet has been engaged in various kinds of exercises in the South China Sea, and this proportion will grow in future.
The Dilemma of Southeast Asian States
The small Southeast Asian states are caught in the US-China power politics to dominate the Asia-Pacific. The Southeast Asian countries, both the claimants states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei and the non-claimant states Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are not only no match to China‘s military and economic power but they are at its mercy. They are heavily reliant on China for their economic growth and finding themselves in dilemma when coming to the territorial conflict with China. They look upon the US as a deterrent against China, but they are not in a position to antagonize China. Hence they are adopting a hedging policy between the two great powers to protect their national interest.
Given its dominance China can determine the nature of their relationship not only in the bilateral relations but also in the multilateral relations. China is insistent that the South China Sea dispute only could be resolved by bilateral negotiation with other claimant states.
Despite its bitter experience with the PRC historically as well in the South China Sea, it has no choice but to maintain good economic relations with China. Economically Vietnam is dependent on China and still maintain good relations with China despite its animosity in the South China Sea. The US has developed its relation with Vietnam. It has lifted the arms ban and now Vietnam could purchase military equipment from the US and an US aircraft carrier recently visited Da Nang. Japan has supplied Vietnam with some naval vessels and India has sold some military products.
(ii) The Philippines
Philippines is another Southeast Asian country that depends on China for its economic growth. At the time of the Scarborough Shoal incident, China stopped buying the fruits and vegetables and stopped sending the tourists. A few months ago, President Rodrigo Duterte during his visit to China, set aside its previously confrontational stance on China’s claims in the hope of getting trade and investment from China. He even talked about starting a new foreign policy and distancing the US.
According to the Philippines military, in the first three months of this year, at least 245 Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels were sighted near the disputed Thitu Island in South China Sea that the Philippines’ claims. The Department of Foreign Affairs said that the presence of the Chinese vessels were illegal and a clear violation of Philippines sovereignty. The Philippines believes that the presence of the large number of Chinese vessels is an effort to pressure the Philippines over infrastructure work it is doing there.
Duterte warned Beijing of possible military action if China refused to leave the island. He warned China of ordering the soldiers living on the island to conduct suicide mission on the Chinese vessels. But he admitted that the war against China would be futile and that the Philippines would lose and suffer heavily.
In the past, the US announced that the U.S – Philippines Defence Arrangement would not guarantee in the event of any clash over the disputed territories in the South China Sea. Recently it changed its stance and announced that the US will come to the aid and defence of the Philippines in case of possible Chinese aggression over the South China Sea dispute.
Malaysia has been maintaining a good relation with China since 1970. It was the first ASEAN country to start diplomatic relation with China. China is its largest trading partner and recently has started closer defence relation involving in military exercises and purchasing of a few naval vessels from China. From time to time, Chinese fishing vessels and Coast Guards encroach Malaysia’s territorial waters, but Malaysia adopt a ‘don’t know’ attitude. Malaysia is still a member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with UK, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore as the member states. The FPDA may not come to assist Malaysia in the event of a conflict over a disputed territory in the South China Sea, especially with a country like China. But it could be possible with the pressure from the US, linking with the ANZUS and NATO.
Brunei maintains a very cordial relation with China cooperating in the petroleum industry. It is too tiny to make any difference.
In the past, Indonesia announced that it was not a claimant in South China Sea dispute and often took a stance of an “honest’ broker. However, China’s unilaterally declared nine-dash line overlaps Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near Natuna Islands. China claims it as its traditional fishing water. Recently when the Chinese fishing vessels encroached the waters of the Natuna Islands, the Indonesian naval forces burnt down some of the vessels.
Non- claimant States
Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar are the ASEAN states that have no territorial disputes in South China Sea.
Cambodia benefits financially much from China in terms of trade, aid and investment. Hence it has backed China over the dispute in ASEAN meetings, preventing consensus over unified ASEAN action. There is also a strong anti-Vietnam sentiment in Cambodia which favours the PRC.
Laos is another state that is dependent heavily on China. It has supported China by refusing to accept the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Singapore maintain a close defence relations with the US and provides logistic support to the US Navy. It has offered to play a neutral role in being a constructive conduit for dialogue among the claimant states. However, Singapore hopes that China will obey international laws.
Thailand is neutral and is open to hearing both sides and will not push to consensus. It has good bilateral relations with China and the US.
Myanmar maintains good economic relation with China as well as the US.
China made it very clear that the maritime territorial disputes in the SCS is a bilateral issue between China and individual claimant state. There was a view that the SCS dispute must be presented as an ASEAN issue to China. This is not workable as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have no territorial claims in the South China Sea and it is not in their interest to present the issue as an ASEAN issue. Besides it is not in their interest to go against China. This is well reflected in the ASEAN Meeting in Cambodia in 2018 where it was not possible to issue a joint communique as it involved the SCS dispute. It is obvious that it was China’s economic and military power that enable China to dictate the terms.
Four Claimant States
The four claimant states are fully aware that China will not entertain any joint approach by the four states. They accepted the Chinese demand that the matter must be bilaterally done and in is in their national interest as well to handle the matter bilaterally with China.
Association of South East Asian Nations
Liberalism emphasizes on cooperation among states to manage and resolve conflicts. On 22nd July 1992, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Manila and China issued a joint Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea which called upon the contending claimants to resolve issues of sovereignty without resort to force and also urged the parties to exercise restraint with a view to creating a positive climate for the eventual resolution of all the disputes.
ASEAN Regional Forum
It is an institution for multilateral security dialogue with the participation of twenty-seven states which was established at the initiative of ASEAN during the annual meeting of foreign ministers held in Singapore in July, 1993. Its prime function is confidence-building and conventional defence cooperation. Dialogue. The South China Dispute was discussed in the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Phnom Penh in 2018. Due to China’s pressure on Cambodia ASEAN was unable to become a joint-communique on South China Sea.
Code of Conduct
The claimants of the South China Sea dispute agreed to come with a Code of Conduct but to date there is no substantial progress as China did not show seriousness. It is believed that they are
All the claimants of the South China Sea are parties to the UNCLOS 1982. China ratified the UNCLOS 1982 on 7th June, 1996. The Philippines ratified on 8th May 1984. When a state becomes a party to an international treaty, sovereign consents to the piece of international legislation. The principle pucta sur survenda expects the parties to the international law to adhere to that law. When majority of the states in the international system become parties to an international law, it assumes the status of customary international law and will be binding on all states, including those who not a party to the treaty. Sometimes powerful states will choose not to obey the judgments of international judicial bodies when the judgments are are not favouring them.
The Philippines took the South China maritime dispute with China to the Arbitration Tribunal in Hague. On 12th July 2016, the Tribunal gave the judgment based on the UNCLOS 1982 that China has no legal basis for its claims in the South China Sea . China did not accept the judgment.
All these shows that when a powerful state encounters a challenge to its fundamental national interest from a legal judgment, it can choose to ignore that judgment and no one will be able to enforce the law. If the state is a weak state, then the powerful states may take action against the state to obey the law.
Future of South China Sea and Regional Security
Any conflict in the South China Sea between the PRC and the US will have a serious regional economic, political and security implications. It has all the potential to develop into a regional international conflict that will involve all the major powers and their allies – the US, China, Russia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Australia, India, and the ASEAN states. The nature and the consequences of the war will be beyond imagination. Given that the modern war is a war of advanced military technology, there will be no winners but only losers, it is vital to avoid a war in the South China Sea at all cost.
Will the South China Sea Dispute lead to war?
According to Paul Goodman, there are eight reasons for war, namely economic gain, territorial gain, religion, nationalism, revenge, civil war, revolutionary war and defensive war. Out of the eight five seems to be found in the South China Sea – economic gain, territorial gain, nationalism and revenge. At the current situation all the countries involved in the dispute are trading partners, hence there is interdependence. For instance, China may be a political and military rival, but it is also a crucial economic partner for all of them. The US depends on China to finance its deficits. China depends on the United States to buy the exports. If China were able to get control of the territories within the nine-dotted line, then China will benefit tremendously vis-à-vis all other states that have stake in the South China Sea. This may spark a conflict that would lead to a serious war. At the moment such outcome is not in the scene. Among the claimant states nationalism has some influence in relation to the South China Sea. It is strong in China and Vietnam. In the Philippines, it is in the making while it is very minimal in Malaysia and almost nothing in Brunei. The element of revenge could be ascribed to China in terms of its hundred years of humiliation or Vietnam due to its bitter experience with China in its history and the defeats in the South China Sea at the hands of China. But for Vietnam which is a small state compared to China, revenge will not be a factor that could lead to war.
T.V. Paul accounts for four situations that could lead to war, namely changing capabilities, changing alliances, changing neighbours and whose side is time on? In terms of changing capabilities, we could see it is taking place among all the major stakeholders in the South China Sea dispute. There is no change with the US alliances in the Indo-Pacific. The PRC has no alliance but could rely on Russia and North Korea in the event of a war with the US and its allies. In terms of changing neighbours, despite some states getting closer to China for economic reason, still there is no clear changing of neighbours in the region. On the idea of whose side is time on, it appears as if it on the side of China at the moment on the economic dimension. However, this may change in due course of time as China is spending more on military, having more people of old age, whether the BRI will be successful, will US, EU and Japan will be resilient, India will rise more and other unknown factors. On whose side time is difficult to predict.
Despite this some scholars support the argument that war between China and the US is likely to take place. Michael Pillsbury in his book, The Hundred-Year Marathon. China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower gives the picture that war may occur between the US and China. Graham Allison in his well-known book, Destined for War. Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap’ says that “war between the US and China in the decades ahead is not just possible but much more likely than currently recognized”.
If war were to occur between China and the US, its nature, extend need to be looked into. Will that be a conventional war? Will that lead to a nuclear war? Will that be a limited war or a total war? Will that be a war in the South China Sea, a regional war in East Asia involving regional powers or will that be World War III with extreme consequences for world. It may encompass war in the space, cyber war and anti-satellite, tactical anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare.
What is the Choice?
The only choice that we have is to avoid a war at all cost. We can learn from the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world was at the edge of a nuclear war but saved by the wisdom of John F. Kennedy of the United States and Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. The leaders of the major powers in the Indo-Pacific such as Trump, Xi Jinping, Putin, Abe, Modi and the Secretary General of the United Nations and other regional intergovernmental organizations must work together to prevent the problem from becoming a conflagration. The most important countries that will make a significant contribution to avoid war will be China and the US. China will be the country that must make the most adjustment to determine to whom the South China Sea belonged to. The US must not adopt a containment policy against China as it will only lead to arms race and security dilemma not only between the two, but also among the regional states making the region more volatile. In the event both powers and other stakeholders refuse to make the much needed adjustments, it is obvious we are on the path to a dangerous war in which there are no winners but all losers but millions of victims and extreme destruction.
Given it is the globalized world, the South China Sea maritime territorial dispute needs the careful attention of all the major powers, the claimant states and the intergovernmental organizations in the region. It has the inherent potential to develop into the Third World War with unimaginable destruction in terms of human life and danger to human civilization. It is the responsibility of the United Nations, especially the leaders of the UN Security Council to avoid a conflict in the South China Sea as it may expand to other parts of the world.
“Let China sleep, for when China wakes, she will shake the world”
“While the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”
Melian Dialogue, Thucydides, The Pelopponesian War
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