Containing China’s Ambitions in the South China Sea

Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asserted US interest in the South China Sea, bringing the region's disputed maritime boundaries to the forefront of relations with China. It also hints at an unspoken shift towards a new policy of containment of China and its interests.


Image: Flickr/Navy Office of Information, U.S. Navy Public AffairsAT A 23 JULY 2010 MEETING of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, an ASEAN-plus-three conclave which tackles a range of security issues, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stated that the South China Sea was “pivotal to regional stability”. China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, responded by saying that internationalising the issue (an approach long opposed by Beijing) will simply make resolution more difficult.  The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China’s military service most concerned with developments in the region, subsequently underlined China’s new, aggressive stance when it conducted exercises in the Sea in early August 2010.

Clinton's comments follow an increase in bilateral tensions owing to China’s perceived unwillingness to act forcefully to control its errant client state, North Korea, after the sinking of the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in March 2010. They also follow China’s own branding of the South China Sea as a “core interest” that same month, thereby setting it, at least in rhetorical terms, alongside other non-negotiable issues such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. Relations had been flagging since the Obama Administration’s November 2009 decision to permit the sale of a US$6 billion arms package to Taiwan.  Efforts to improve links since then have foundered, suggesting that the differences between the two powers are becoming increasingly structural, and the joint South Korean and US naval exercises in the Yellow Sea in late July 2010 have merely hardened sentiments.


Frozen Island Claims

The dispute has two main dimensions. The first is an essentially bilateral dispute between Vietnam and China over possession of the Paracel Islands, the sea’s northernmost island chain, which is wholly under Chinese military control. The second is the much more complex dispute over claims to the Spratly Islands by a number of littoral states including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.  Various islands in the chain are under the control of the disputants’ armed forces, with China, the Philippines, and Vietnam all maintaining permanent structures on certain islets.

The legal bases of these claims are, for the most part, quite weak. Chinese and Vietnamese claims to the Paracels stem from historical use. Hanoi’s argument is that the French government administered both archipelagoes during the colonial period, and that their inclusion in maps of Vietnam dates back to the 18th century. In turn, China’s counterarguments for possession of the Paracels are based on historical use, maritime law, and geographical proximity.  For the Spatlys, Vietnam and China claim historical use, akin to their claims to the Paracels.  Malaysia and Brunei rest their claims on their reading of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Philippines’ claims stem both from UNCLOS and geographical proximity.

Efforts to resolve the crisis have done little more than freeze it. The departure of Soviet maritime forces after 1989 from the Cam Ranh naval base in Vietnam facilitated talks on the issue, which led in 1992 to the Manila Declaration on the South China Sea. This was followed in 1995 with a bilateral agreement between the Philippines and China on a Code of Conduct for oil exploration in the South China Sea. The latter agreement did not prevent Beijing from taking control of an atoll called Mischief Reef inside the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 1996. ASEAN nonetheless took the agreement as a model for a future, regional Code of Conduct. Subsequent talks led to a 2002 Declaration on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, which is the prevailing international legal instrument on the issue. It is, however, nonbinding and essentially amounts to little more than a statement that all parties will comply with the relevant international legal principles, including the UNCLOS, the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (to which China became a signatory in 2003 and which prohibits the use of force in the region).

The improved political climate since 2002 yielded few dividends. A 2005 Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam was tainted by two issues: accusations in the parliament in Manila that the Macapagal administration agreed to the JMSU in exchange for bribes from China; and suggestions from Filipino parliamentarians as well as from Hanoi that China was using the initiative to gain strategic information. Efforts to tackle the issue started to wane; the JSMU lapsed in 2008, in response to growing tensions most closely linked to China’s 2007 announcement that it had incorporated the administration of the South China Sea into Sansha County in Hainan province. Beijing returned to its default position that any discussions on this issue must take place on a bilateral and not multilateral basis.


A Growing Risk Of Conflict

There are compelling economic-strategic considerations behind the dispute. The islands straddle one of the world’s busiest waterways: over 60% of the world’s maritime trade passes through it, including 80% of Chinese oil imports. The South China Sea is also one of the world’s richest fisheries, accounting for about 10% of the global fish catch, and it is thought to contain significant resources of oil and gas. Strategic arguments focused on military defence and force projection are perhaps the most compelling. From China’s perspective, control of the South China Sea would allow it to exert pressure on the Japanese and Taiwanese economies, which rely on supplies transported via regional sea lanes, and keep the Indian Navy bottled up in the Indian Ocean, thereby neutralizing a regional threat to China’s littoral. It would also extend the reach of its naval assets into the Straits of Malacca – well beyond the ranges dictated by current maritime jurisdictions and force projection capabilities. It is precisely this sort of regional ascendancy the other littoral states wish to prevent.

The risk of conflict is real and growing. Fishermen from all disputants are routinely arrested and even shot. Vietnam and China have a history of animosity owing to Vietnam’s depiction of China as its ancestral enemy, as well as more recent tensions related to Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and China’s response to it, a punitive war against Vietnam in 1979. The South China Sea issue remains a key source of acrimony between the two states despite improved relations in recent years. Vietnam has started to increase its naval capacity, buying new corvettes and frigates, most notably in December 2009 when Hanoi bought six diesel/electric Kilo class submarines from Russia. The move by Hanoi followed similar acquisitions by Malaysia, which is another disputant, and Singapore, which is not. Notwithstanding its overt naval superiority over the other disputants, China is thus increasingly alive to the threat these submarines present to its sea lanes.


US Intervention

Washington had hitherto sought to stabilise conditions in the South China Sea, but appeared to depart from this stance when it recently increased its naval presence in order to ensure freedom of navigation. In turn, increased US activity angered China, and in early 2009 a standoff involving water cannon took place between the USS Impeccable, a submarine hunting vessel, and five Chinese flagged ships. A similar if less publicised event took place again in March 2010. Vietnam has actively sought US support in any stand-off with China, and Clinton’s comments, which amount to an overt declaration that the US has a right to intervene in the issue, seem a partial validation of Hanoi’s strategy.

China’s increased aggression, then, appears to have provoked the US into pursuing a strategy of South China Sea containment or even roll-back. The US has a range of incentives to do so. First, it has a strategic role to play as a security guarantor to smaller regional powers, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, which fear Chinese expansion in the region – thereby preserving the US-led ‘hub and spoke’ system of bilateral security accords in the Asia-Pacific. Second, the US Navy has an operational interest in maintaining situational awareness of China’s growing submarine capacity – especially since the expansion of the Sanya base on the island province of Hainan into a platform for China’s ballistic missile armed submarines. 

Washington has hitherto been careful not to label its efforts “containment”, proclaiming instead its determination to cooperate with China in part because of its need to engage with China on a range of issues, including its US debt holdings. China, naturally enough, resents US intrusion in what it sees as its immediate neighbourhood. In this context, what had seemed a local flashpoint is increasingly acquiring an international dimension, resembling, the even more intractable and flammable Korean peninsula. More broadly US policy appears to be shifting towards an unspoken strategy of containment, if developments in the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula can be taken as accurate indicators. Accordingly, the US relationship with Vietnam and other South East Asian states may in time become bellwethers for the state of bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington, since containment in the South China Sea starts in Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. In the interim, the risk of friction and conflict in the region is growing.



Kit Dawnay is an independent foreign policy analyst specialising in East Asian international affairs and finance. He has worked for a defence services company, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and as a newspaper journalist.  He lives in Hong Kong.