- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Rising Tensions in the South China Sea

Download a printer-friendly PDF:

Rising Tensions in the South China Sea

An Interview with Ian Storey

By Tim Cook
June 17, 2011

Maritime disputes in the South China Sea are once again front page news. Vietnam and China are at odds over a recent incident between a Vietnamese survey ship and Chinese patrol boats in waters off the southern coast of Vietnam, and the Philippines is protesting China’s recent unloading of building materials on Amy Douglas Bank, an area claimed by the Philippines.

NBR spoke with Ian Storey from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore—an expert on Southeast Asia’s relations with China and the United States, maritime security in the Asia-Pacific, and China’s foreign and defense policies—about the rise in tensions between claimants in the South China Sea. He is a research member of NBR’s three-year study Maritime Energy Resources in Asia: Opportunities for Joint Development and the author of the recently released book Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security (2011).

Stepping back from recent events, what is the nature of the disputes in the South China Sea?

Fundamentally the disputes center on ownership of hundreds of small islands, rocks, and reefs in the South China Sea and the maritime jurisdictional rights that would allow the disputants to claim exploitation rights to valuable maritime resources. The South China Sea is rich in fish, which is a vital source of protein for hundreds of millions of people across Asia, and also a lucrative source of income. More importantly, there is a widely held perception that the seabed beneath the disputed atolls contains significant reserves of crude oil and natural gas, resources of critical importance to the energy security and developmental aspirations of all countries in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition to the resource dimension, the islets occupy an important strategic location: the sea lanes that pass through the South China Sea link the Pacific and Indian oceans and function as vital arteries of world trade.

China and Vietnam claim ownership of the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the South China Sea, while ownership of the Spratly Islands further south is contested in whole or in part by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. All the claimants except Brunei have occupied and garrisoned islets, and the dispute has been a motivating factor in the military modernization programs of regional states. None of the governments involved have shown the slightest willingness to budge on the issue of sovereignty. In short, the disputes are a heady and potentially dangerous brew of nationalism, energy and sea lane security, and military posturing.

Are the current tensions simply par for the course among claimants in the South China Sea? If not, what has changed?

Tensions have been rising in the South China Sea since about 2007, principally because the claimants have moved to strengthen their sovereignty claims and develop oil and gas fields in their two hundred nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ). China, in particular, has been much more assertive over the past few years in pushing its territorial and maritime boundary claims, partly because the Chinese Navy can now project and sustain greater power in the South China Sea and partly because Beijing believes that some Southeast Asian claimants are “plundering” maritime resources that belong to China. Since March, we have witnessed a worrying escalation of tensions as China has adopted more aggressive tactics such as cutting the cables of survey ships, planting markers on unoccupied reefs, and harassing foreign fishing boats. Today, tensions in the South China Sea are higher than they have ever been since the end of the Cold War.

In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to the ASEAN-China Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to better manage tensions arising from the disputes. The declaration included language that committed the parties to working toward a more formal, binding code of conduct. What are the prospects for reaching such an agreement?

In the nine years that have passed since ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), the parties have struggled to agree on a set of guidelines to implement cooperative confidence-building measures (CBM). There are faults on both sides: China has obstructed the process, but there are also divisions within ASEAN as to the best way to proceed. Paragraph 10 of the DoC calls on the signatories to adopt a more formal and binding code of conduct (CoC). The governments of Vietnam and the Philippines have called for the speedy adoption of a CoC, and Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has recently expressed optimism that China and ASEAN can reach an agreement “soon.” But I think such optimism is misplaced. If after nine years ASEAN and China cannot agree on how to put into effect a set of fairly uncontroversial CBMs, what hope is there for reaching an agreement on a binding code designed to limit the sovereignty-building activities of the more active claimants? Little to none I would say.

What are the chances of conflict breaking out as a result of the disputes?

I do not think there is any immediate danger of a full-blown conflict in the South China Sea, as this is in no country’s interests. What worries me is the increasing frequency of skirmishes at sea involving warships, vessels from maritime agencies, survey ships, and fishing boats, which raises the risk of an accidental clash at sea. Such a clash, which could easily escalate into something more serious, would raise tensions even further and fuel instability. Unfortunately, there are no conflict avoidance mechanisms in place between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. There is thus an urgent need to implement such mechanisms before tense stand-offs spiral out of control.

What implications do the South China Sea disputes hold for U.S. policy and interests in the region?

The United States has vital economic and strategic interests in the South China Sea, and over the past several years senior U.S. officials have expressed concern that ongoing tensions could undermine those interests and impede freedom of navigation. The United States does not take a position on competing claims, opposes the use of force, and supports a negotiated settlement of the dispute consistent with international law. Washington has also called for the “concrete implementation” of the DoC and the adoption of a CoC to ease tensions, promote trust, and prevent armed clashes at sea. The United States’ forward-deployed military presence in Asia plays a stabilizing role in the South China Sea, and over the coming years the U.S. Navy has pledged to increase its presence in the area and step up capacity-building support for regional states, including Southeast Asian countries that have overlapping claims with China. In addition to bolstering its military presence in Southeast Asia, it is very important that the United States, in concert with its friends and allies in the region, continues to raise the South China Sea dispute at regional security forums so it can be addressed in a substantive manner, even if China is opposed to the “internationalization” of the problem. It is a regional problem that requires a regional and not a bilateral approach.

Tim Cook is the project director for NBR's three-year study Maritime Energy Resources in Asia: Opportunities for Joint Development on which Ian Storey is a research member. For more information, please contact Tim at