As US-China tensions rise, what is the outlook on the South China Sea dispute in 2020-21?

Ian Storey

The situation has grown fraught since the onset of Covid-19, with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also hardening their stanceBut China is unlikely to terraform further land features, while Vietnam will also refrain from legally challenging Beijing’s claims or actions

Ian Storey

Published: 5:00am, 8 Sep, 2020 SCMP

The US Navy aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis transits the South China Sea in 2019. Photo: Reuters

The US Navy aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis transits the South China Sea in 2019. Photo: Reuters

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, tensions in the South China Sea have surged. This is mainly the result of China’s continued assertiveness coupled with the sharp deterioration in US-China relations over a variety of issues including the South China Sea itself.

Actions undertaken by Beijing to assert its jurisdictional claims, and demonstrate that the pandemic has not undermined its political resolve or the operational readiness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), have been counterproductive.These include employing the PLA Navy, China Coast Guard and maritime militia in pursuit of these goals, surging fishing boats into the waters adjacent to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands as well as deploying survey vessels into the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. China has also created two new administrative districts to cover the Paracels and Spratlys and named 80 geographical features, while also conducting missile tests in the disputed waterway.In response, the United States has stepped up its military presence in the South China Sea as well as its criticism of China’s actions. Most importantly, in support of the Southeast Asian claimants, Washington has aligned its South China Sea policy with the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, which declared Beijing’s “historic rights” incompatible with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). On June 1, the US submitted a letter to the UN laying out its stance in that regard, while on July 13 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a major statement endorsing the arbitral ruling and rejecting most of China’s claims.https://multimedia.scmp.com/widgets/graphicsEmbeds/embed/?id=200619seUyvntYUNVj

On August 26, the US State Department imposed sanctions on an undisclosed number of Chinese citizens “responsible or, or complicit in, either the large-scale reclamation, construction, or militarisation of disputed outposts in the South China Sea”, while the US Department of Commerce blacklisted 24 state-owned companies involved in the construction of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.

China and the US accuse each other of provoking tensions and militarising the dispute. The Pentagon has increased the frequency of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. In the first seven months of 2020, the US Navy conducted seven FONOPs in the Paracels and Spratlys, compared with eight in 2019, five in 2018 and four in 2017. The US Navy has also conducted a series of high-profile exercises in the South China Sea, including dual aircraft carrier operations for the first time since 2014,-and increased submarine deployments and maritime air patrols.

US sanctions on Chinese firm at centre of South China Sea island-building ‘could ripple across Asia’28 Aug 2020

The Southeast Asian claimants believe that Beijing has taken advantage of the pandemic to advance its claims, and have responded by hardening their positions. Since December last year, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines have all submitted notes verbale to the UN rejecting China’s nine-dash line and its claims to “historic rights” in the South China Sea to be inconsistent with Unclos.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/PDpde/4/More significantly, in rejecting China’s claims, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines explicitly referred to the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, thereby effectively resurrecting the award after four years of it being put to one side. Even Brunei, long considered the “silent claimant”, issued its first unilateral statement on the South China Sea on July 20, which referenced the ruling.Under Vietnam’s chairmanship this year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has also placed greater emphasis on Unclos as the “basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”. However, to avoid antagonising China, none of the Asean countries explicitly endorsed Pompeo’s statement, though Vietnam came the closest.

South China Sea: Asean states set course for Beijing’s red line22 Aug 2020

Over the next 18 months, a let-up in tensions is unlikely. US-China relations will worsen irrespective of which candidate wins the November presidential election. China and the US will increase their military activities in the South China Sea, raising the risk of a confrontation. Rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait will have a spillover effect on the South China Sea dispute. Southeast Asian attempts to protect their sovereign rights by emphasising the importance of international law and through negotiations with China for a code of conduct for the South China Sea will do little to change the central dynamics of the dispute.

An aerial shot of a reef in the disputed Spratly islands. Photo: AFP

An aerial shot of a reef in the disputed Spratly islands. Photo: AFP

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Worsening US-China Rivalry

The escalating strategic rivalry between the US and China will continue to inflame tensions in the South China Sea. Discord between Beijing and Washington could increase markedly in the run-up to the November 2020 US presidential election. Given the bipartisan consensus in America over China, a future administration led by Joe Biden would be unlikely to adopt a more conciliatory policy on the South China Sea. If President Donald Trump wins re-election, his administration will continue its hardline policy towards China in the waterway. In 2020-21, therefore, we can expect to see a higher tempo of US military operations in the South China Sea, including presence missions, overflights, exercises and FONOPs. Further US sanctions can be expected to be imposed on individuals and companies from China that Washington accuses of implementing Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea.

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