Recently, China made a move to occupy one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea, a decision that has been highly criticised by the United States and some South Asian nations. The decision is viewed as irresponsible and having the potential to exacerbate already existing tension in the South China Sea.
For decades now, diplomatic relations between the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) and China have been clouded by controversy over the maritime rights on the South China Sea. The South China Sea supports one-third of the world’s traffic in the shipping trade. Half of the world’s oil and gas is transported through it. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines all have overlapping territorial claims over a seabed that has proven oil reserves and natural gas.
This think piece reflects on China’s decision to occupy one of the major disputed islands in the area, the Spratly Island, which is also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, and examines the possibility of military confrontation between the claimant states.
China claims to have territorial sovereignty over a huge area covering waters that Vietnam and the Philippines also claim to have sovereignty over. The fact of the matter is that all three countries are eager to tap on the island’s possibly huge offshore oil reserves.
To avert military confrontation of regional states in the South China Sea, relations have since 2002 been guided by rules and values championed by the ASEAN regional bloc, after the adoption of the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. According to this declaration, all signing parties pledge to seek peaceful solutions to disputes and conduct maritime cooperation in order to maintain regional stability in the South China Sea.
However, for the first time in the history of the ASEAN bloc, the subject of maritime rights led to disagreements that created disunity during its 45th regional summit held in July 2012 in Cambodia. The bloc’s unity was called into question when member states failed to issue a joint communiqué of the summit’s discussions of peace and security. Obviously, the cause of the disunity was the disagreement between pro-China states and the other regional states competing for territorial rights, following the insistence by China that the forum was not the appropriate place to discuss the issue. Claimant states (Philippines and Vietnam) disagreed and pushed for the dispute to be dealt with by the ASEAN bloc.
In recent days, the crisis has been intensified by China’s decision to occupy one of the major disputed islands, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Despite the on-going tensions, China has decided to establish a city called Sansha City, consisting of a government with a military base. It is believed that Beijing plans to use the Sansha base to increase patrols in the disputed waters to safeguard its national sovereignty and security as well as to strengthen its control over the resources and overall development in the South China Sea.
There are different explanations of the real intentions of China’s new move. However, one thing that cannot be ignored is that China’s decision to take full control of the island without any assent from other claimant states opens room for instability in the Southeast Asian region, raising the possibilities of military confrontation among competing states.
This is made even more complicated by the fact that China was not interested in resolving the maritime rights conflict through multilateral dialogue within the ASEAN bloc. This would have clarified China’s intensions and interests in the South China Sea.
Again, China’s decision to flex its military power undermines not only the interests of the claimant states, but also its relations with the ASEAN bloc. Historically, relations between Beijing and ASEAN states have been based on the use of diplomatic dialogues to avoid military solutions to the territorial clashes on the South China Sea.
It should be underlined that all these developments are happening only a few months after the United States (U.S) sought to flex its military power in the region by renewing its military agreements with countries threatened by the rise of China in this region, and upgrading some of its military bases. It is not clear if there is a military power contest between China and the U.S. in this area.
At the moment there are growing concerns about what will happen to the freedom of navigation and maritime trade in the disputed waters, as the conflict may pose a threat to the sea lines of communication. In short, there are uncertainties about the degree of the impact of China’s determination to secure full maritime rights of South China Sea in relation to the balance of power and security that has existed in the Asia-Pacific Sea since the end of World War II.
Although China might appear to be strengthening its military capabilities in the disputed waters to prepare itself for any military threat, it seems none of the other claimant nations would be willing to confront China militarily. However, it is imperative not to underestimate the U.S.’s involvement and influence in Asia-Pacific maritime relations and the implications of the supposition that the U.S. uses some claimant states to preserve its power in the region. The age-old tensions between the U.S and China, which stretch from political ideology to economic power, create conditions for the usage of hard power in the South China Sea dispute. In this context, direct military confrontation in the South China Sea cannot be completely ruled out.
Mr. Kenny Dlamini holds a BA Hons in Politics from the Rhodes University and is a NRF research assistant at the IGD. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.