The South China Sea dispute: January 2016 update

Published Monday, January 25, 2016

Southeast Asia is home to a range of complex territorial disputes, but the most intractable and combustible is the South China Sea dispute. Tensions between the rival countries have been on the rise in recent years.

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The Paracel Islands are disputed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Spratly Islands are disputed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei. The Scarborough Shoal, just to the west of the Philippines, which is sometimes considered to be part of the Spratly Islands, is claimed by The Philippines, China and Taiwan. The maritime boundaries of the Gulf of Tonkin are also disputed by China and Vietnam.

Apart from national pride, access to fisheries and oil and gas resources is at also stake. The area is also one of the world’s major shipping routes.

China has been involved in the majority of the direct clashes between rival claimants in the South China Sea dispute. The relationship between China and Vietnam is perhaps the most volatile of those between the rival claimants.

China is opposed to greater US involvement in the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, preferring bilateral negotiations. The other countries favour greater US involvement and prefer multilateral negotiations through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, China has not been entirely hostile to more multilateral approaches. In 2002 China and ASEAN agreed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in which all countries agreed to seek peaceful solutions to disputes in the South China Sea. Since 2011, there has been talk of agreeing a legally binding Code of Conduct for all parties but to date no meaningful progress has been made towards one.

The last five years or so have seen rising tensions over rival claims in the South China Sea. The countries involved in the dispute have been strengthening their military capabilities, with some also exploring legal avenues. In addition, there have been intermittent efforts to reduce tensions through dialogue.

Events in 2015

In April 2015 satellite images revealed that China had begun building a large airstrip on reclaimed land on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. China insisted that the airstrip was for civilian purposes, but many were highly sceptical, with fears being expressed that China might impose an ‘air defence zone’ over the area, as it did over the East China Sea, where it has overlapping claims with Japan, in 2013.

In October, an Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS ruled that it had jurisdiction to consider the claim of the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China and that the claim was admissible. China condemned the decision, rejecting the Tribunal’s jurisdiction and repeating its opposition to any third-party settlement of territorial disputes.

In the same month, the US sailed a destroyer within 12-nautical miles of new artificial islands being built by China in the Spratlys, announcing that this was the first of a series of actions intended to assert the right to free navigation in the region. China warned the US that such a move would further increase tensions and retaliated by holding a naval exercise in the South China Sea. It also leaked reports that a Chinese naval vessel might ram the next US warship that entered what it considered its territory.

Also in December, a US B-52 strategic bomber flew within a few miles of a reef claimed by China in the South China Sea. China accused the US of a “serious military provocation”; the US said that it had been an error.

The South China Sea dispute was discussed at several intergovernmental summits during the second half of 2015, including the ASEAN summit. However, some analysts see ASEAN as a divided and increasingly marginal player.

2016 prospects

The most likely outlook is for more of the same in the course of 2016. The rival claimants will continue with their military build-ups and further escalation is possible. There seems little prospect at present of meaningful negotiations or of a legal resolution to the dispute. A legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea currently looks a far-off prospect. As always, the fear is that a clash or stand-off could inadvertently trigger a larger armed confrontation whose consequences could prove difficult to control. Some analysts view this as a major risk, while others are more sanguine. Either way, if this is the “new normal” in the South China Sea, it is a highly dysfunctional and undesirable one.


Commons Briefing papers CBP-7481

Author: Jon Lunn

Topics: Armed forces, Asia, International economic relations, International law, International politics and government

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