China Policy Institute: Analysis


South China Sea

Vietnam is struggling to unite its Mekong neighbours against China

Written by Oliver Hensengerth.

Vietnam moved rocket launchers into disputed territory in the South China Sea, reports recently suggested, meaning it could potentially attack land that China has controversially reclaimed. This all comes at a time of heightened tension over territorial wrangling in the region. Continue reading “Vietnam is struggling to unite its Mekong neighbours against China”

China’s strategic confusion in the South China Sea

Written by Nie Wenjuan.

Since Xi’s ascendancy many observers have noted a growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS). Among other developments, China has increased the size of some of the land features in the islands it controls and created completely new land features that had previously been submerged reefs.

However, from China’s perspective, these actions are at most a kind of “passive assertiveness”. Put differently, China’s assertiveness stems from a natural response to challenges posed by the rival claimants, which include the international arbitration lodged by the Philippines in 2014 as well as the joint submission made by Vietnam and Malaysia to CLCS to extend their continental shelves beyond 200 nm in 2009. Of course, there are good reasons to believe that the rhetoric of “passive assertiveness” coming from Chinese elites and policymakers is partly self-serving in justifying its behaviour.

Continue reading “China’s strategic confusion in the South China Sea”

Troubled waters: conflict in the South China Sea explained

Written by John Rennie Short.

A United Nations arbitration court will soon rule over the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea, a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines with global implications.

In recent years, China has been asserting claims in the region and has built up atolls and islands to be large enough to stage military exercises. This region is of major economic and geopolitical significance, with its vital commercial shipping lanes, rich fisheries and massive natural gas and oil deposits. Continue reading “Troubled waters: conflict in the South China Sea explained”

How the push to unite South-East Asia against Chinese expansionism could backfire

Written by Scott Edwards.

After years of rising anxiety, China’s push for dominance in the South China Sea is still rattling nerves among its neighbours, and in the world beyond. Beijing’s territorial claims and its military assertiveness have inflamed tensions with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, all of whom lay claim to territory on which China is now planting its flag.

The US, for its part, has openly accused the Chinese of militarising the region, pointing to satellite images showing that artificial islands China has constructed are now host to radar stations, air strips, and anti-aircraft missiles.

Washington is pushing back on Chinese influence with Freedom of Navigation patrols and an increased military presence, and recently announced that a carrier group would begin operating in the contested area. The US is also seeking to strengthen its defence ties with allies in the region. Obama has made commitments to bolstering Philippine defencethrough an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. The US’s relationship with Vietnam has also grown through a Joint Vision Statement on future military co-operation.

But above all, the US has one particular diplomatic ally in mind: the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which it sees as the crucial diplomatic force that can help take the heat out of the crisis. But the Obama administration’s attempts to get the organisation working as an effective bloc have yet to show much promise.

Despite Washington’s best efforts, the ASEAN states are increasingly divided over how to deal with the conflict. At a major US-ASEAN summit at the start of 2016, Obama called for ASEAN to present a united stance on the South China Sea, but the talks ultimately yielded only a vague declaration on shared commitments that skirted around China’s behaviour.

This failure to reach a consensus on how to deal with China’s military expansionism shows just how divided the ASEAN member states are – and that bodes ill for the US’s approach to the trouble brewing in the region.


These countries’ core interests do not always match, and their relationships with China all have their own complexities. This disunity has been sapping ASEAN’s potential for some time: back in 2012, the ASEAN failed for the first time to agree on a joint statement.

By contrast, China has this year declared a consensus with ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, opposing any attempt to “unilaterally impose” an agenda on other countries – a clear rebuke to the US-ASEAN relationship.

The world beyond South-East Asia is deeply disappointed. After the US-ASEAN summit turned out to be a damp squib, there were calls for ASEAN to look beyond national interests for the good of the region. When China announced the 2016 consensus, worried international onlookers fretted that ASEAN’s faultlines are being exploited to curb its influence.

The ASEAN countries seem condemned to choose between striving for a unified outlook where one does not exist, or relying on alliances and bilateral relations outside of the ASEAN framework. The first option is often the one that observers, especially in the West, seem to prefer, apparently convinced that a strong, united ASEAN would be the best counterweight to China.

But accepting ASEAN’s weakness might be much wiser. Whatever its utility in the South China Sea dispute, ASEAN is still a crucial mechanism for building trust, something vitally important in a region with an array of issues to deal with beyond the South China Sea. Forcing it to hammer out a consensus where none exists would greatly disrupt that function, and could send shockwaves through delicate relationships on other sensitive issues.

A delicate balance

A little restraint from the US and the West could still leave ASEAN a vital part to play. It has been building confidence among its members ever since the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which declared a commitment to dialogue with China and to finding peaceful means of dispute resolution.

This was strengthened in 2003, when China signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. The hope was that inviting China to abide by the same rules as ASEAN would help build confidence and consensus among the group’s members.

So far, the ASEAN states have generally stuck to these principles. If they turn their backs on them, the organisation’s chances of playing a serious diplomatic role will be greatly diminished.

The hope is that ASEAN will continue to facilitate discussion with China, creating a snowball effect of co-operation rather than choosing sides explicitly. This path makes more sense than forcing ASEAN’s members into lockstep, as the US seems inclined to do. If ASEAN becomes the main focus of efforts against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, the weak links of trust and co-operation between its divided members could quickly start to fray.

Scott Edwards is a Doctoral Researcher in International Relations at the University of Birmingham. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Abhisit Vejjajiva/Flickr. 

British Defence Secretary speaks out on South China Sea

Written by Alex Calvo.

Going beyond the British Government’s cautious posture to date, Her Majesty’s defence minister, the Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, said that “When it comes to China we’re clear”, stating that while London wants to “work more closely with” Beijing, with the purpose of binding the PRC “into the rules based international order”, the UK also wishes to see “maritime and other disputes settled peacefully in accordance with international law”. Furthermore, and this is what makes his words more noteworthy, Fallon went on to say that “provocative behaviour in the South China Sea destabilises the region”, adding that it “increases the risk of miscalculation”. Continue reading “British Defence Secretary speaks out on South China Sea”

South China Sea arbitration: Manila rearms and concludes fisheries agreement with Taiwan

Written by Alex Calvo.

The 29 October decision by the international arbitration tribunal on jurisdiction and admissibility of the UNCLOS arbitration case launched by the Philippines against China has rightly been interpreted as a victory for Manila. The Court unanimously decided that it had jurisdiction concerning seven of its fifteen claims, with a decision on a further seven to be reached simultaneously with their merits, dismissing China’s view that the case involved deciding on maritime borders and that the Philippines had agreed not to pursue compulsory arbitration under UNCLOS. As stressed by the court, this does not imply a favourable decision on the case, with a final ruling not expected until next year. In the meantime, the two parties directly involved, and the many countries (both South China Sea claimants and other interested powers) with a stake in the matter keep jockeying for position. International law does not exist in a vacuum, and it is thus necessary to follow not only the arbitration proceedings themselves but other developments on the ground. In the case of Manila, she has taken two significant steps in the jurisdiction ruling’s wake: further weapons talks with Tokyo, and a fisheries agreement with Taipei. This has also coincided with the arrival of the first two of 12 Korean-built FA-50 combat planes and the signing of an strategic partnership agreement with Vietnam.

The Philippines are already the recipient of an assistance program designed to beef up her Coastguard, with the provision of boats, training, and communication equipment. However, the end to Tokyo’s ban on weapons sales and the latest reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution with legislation on “collective self-defence”, have opened the door to much tigher relations. It may be unclear whether Tokyo will finally launch FON (Freedom of Navigation) patrols in the South China Sea, with conflicting reports on the matter, but there are many other ways in which Japan may seek to influence the situation in this vital stretch of sea. The specific forms which Japanese policy could take may yet to have been decided, but what is clear in Tokyo is that the country’s national security is at stake, and that it is in Japan’s national interest to see the Philippines develop stronger capabilities in the maritime domain. It thus came as no surprise to see President Aquino and Prime Minister Abe meet on the sidelines of the APEC summit held in the Philippines in November. Abe said “The President and I … shared deep concerns over unilateral actions to change the status quo such as the large-scale land reclamation and building of outpost in the South China Sea. At the same time, we confirmed the importance of partnership in the global community based on the rule of law to protect open, free and peaceful seas”. Concerning rearmament, the Japanese leader said “We welcomed the agreement in principle on transfer of defense equipment and agreed to work together for the early signing of agreement and realization of cooperation in defense equipment. There was a request from President Aquino regarding the provision of large patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard and Japan would like to consider the specifics of the matter”. The Philippines are working to go beyond the coastguard cutters included in the existing agreements, seeking also larger, more capable vessels, given the deployment by China of a growing number of assets, from coastguard and other state agency vessels to trawlers and maritime militia, in the South China Sea.

In addition to upgrading her maritime and naval capabilities, Manila has been engaged in fisheries talks with Taiwan. The talks were launched in the wake of the 9 May 2013 fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine Coast Guard at Balintang Channel. In addition to seeking to limit the scope for incidents and disruption to this important industry, the talks have at least two additional purposes. First of all, to present the Philippines as a reasonable country open to negotiations and agreements concerning disputed waters, implicitly stressing the contrast with China. Second, to give the impression that it is Beijing, not Manila, which is isolated, this also being the reason behind moves to upgrade relations with Vietnam and Malaya. Taiwan in turn is also interested in showing that President Ma’s “East China Sea Peace Initiative” can provide a template for actual action on the ground. Thus, the Philippines invested a considerable deal of political capital and efforts in the talks with Taiwan, which finally bore fruit with the signing of an agreement on 5 November. Wrongly described by some sources as a “treaty”, given the absence of formal diplomatic relations, it is nevertheless very important. According to TECO (Taipei Economic and Cultural Office), Taiwan’s semi-official embassy in Manila, it is expected to “effectively reduce fisheries disputes in the two countries’ overlapping exclusive economic zones and protect the rights and interests of Taiwan fishermen operating legally”. Its text lays down two rules concerning law enforcement: one-hour advance notification, and a three-days release period. Before one party can take action against a fishing vessel with the other’s flag, it must provide one-hour advance notice to its coast guard and fisheries agencies and to its semi-official embassy. Furthermore, if this results in the arrest of the vessel, she must be released within three days after a bond (or other security or payment) of a reasonable amount has been posted. TECO stressed that “The agreement upholds the spirit and principles of President Ma Ying-jeou’s South China Sea Peace Initiative, which calls for shelving disputes, pursuing peace and reciprocity, and promoting joint exploration and development of resources”. After the signing of the agreement, the maiden meeting of the “Technical Working Group” took place that same day, 5 November.

 In line with moves towards the Philippines, on 17 November Manila signed an “strategic partnership” agreement with Vietnam. In their meeting, Philippine President Benigno Aquino and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang discussed the South China Sea, including the international arbitration case, where Vietnam is not a party but made a submission to the court. Sang said “Mr President (Aquino) and I shared our concerns over the recent developments in the East Sea, or the South China Sea, affecting trust, peace, security and stability in the region”, adding that the agreement marked a “new era for cooperation” between the two nations.

 We can thus conclude that, while Manila is attaching great importance to the ongoing international arbitration, she is well aware that the law does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is part of a triumvirate also comprising diplomacy and military might.

 Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image credit: CC by US Navy/Flickr.

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