Dim Prospects for the South China Sea

by Lincoln Hines
December 19, 2013

This is one of eleven essays in the “2014 Asia-Pacific Watch List.”

By Lincoln Hines

December 19, 2013

Conflicts in the South China Sea intensified over the last year, and the situation is unlikely to improve in 2014. Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, have strongly contested Chinese claims in the region. The Philippines has requested international arbitration of its maritime dispute with China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and will submit initial materials to a UN tribunal by April 2014. For its part, China has refused to participate in any legal proceedings aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement. Any ruling in favor of the Philippines, while ultimately unenforceable, would strengthen and internationalize its claims, while an unfavorable ruling would encourage further Chinese assertiveness.

As Beijing continues to use nationalism as a source of political legitimacy at home, China will likely continue to assert its claims of sovereignty over the waters and airspace in the East and South China Seas. These claims have led to dangerous encounters on the high seas, most recently involving the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens, which in December 2013 was harassed by a Chinese navy ship in international waters in the South China Sea. China’s ambitions may even expand in 2014, as some expect it to declare an air defense identification zone in the Yellow Sea or South China Sea. Such an action would amplify tensions in these hotly contested waters, testing the United States’ security commitments and regional strategy.

Currently there is no code of conduct (CoC) to provide a legal framework for peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea. For Southeast Asian claimants, it is essential that a CoC is developed soon, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been unable to produce such an agreement. Many ASEAN members remain focused on narrow and differing national interests and are skeptical of binding agreements that may infringe on their sovereignty. This allows China to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy, delaying any final agreement on a CoC and enabling it to continue pursuing de facto control of the South China Sea. This approach, however, could undermine China’s long-pursued “soft power” strategy in the region, as ASEAN countries grow increasingly frustrated with Beijing’s policies.

Decisive U.S. leadership is thus crucial. Episodes such as the 2013 government shutdown, which led to President Obama’s absence from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, have only augmented concerns among regional partners that the United States’ presence in the Asia-Pacific may be waning, with China poised to fill the vacuum. Although Washington has provided strong rhetorical and material support for its alliance partners and increased its overall military ties to the region, it must continue to reassure its allies while allaying Chinese fears of encirclement. More frequent U.S.-China military exchanges and better channels of communication may help decrease uncertainty, miscommunication, and the risk of potential miscalculation. China’s decision to participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise is a positive step in this direction. Regionally, the United States must continue supporting a CoC, increase military support to Southeast Asian nations, and clarify its commitments.

Lincoln Hines is a Bridge Award Fellow with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR, where he provides research support for various projects such as China Security Studies, Strengthening the Asia-Pacific Order, and China’s Rising Leaders.