Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm


The cooling down some are playing up masks underlying tensions and broader strategic realities.

A year after the supposedly game-changing arbitral tribunal ruling on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against China, the region appears to have entered another period of calm that some are happy to play up. But though a superficial glance might suggest that a cooling down period is truly at play in the South China Sea, a deeper look points to the reality that any calm is illusory at best and shows few signs of lasting.

The illusion of calm in the post-ruling context is due to a confluence of various factors. Chief among them is the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines last June, which, at least for now, has seen Manila shift from the most forward-leaning Southeast Asian claimant in the face of Chinese assertiveness to a laggard, downplaying the South China Sea issue and the ruling it had sought in a bid to reset ties with Beijing (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”).

Though Duterte is often singled out as the main factor in the perceived changing the strategic environment in the South China Sea, the reality is that others have either been complicit in this change or have benefited from it (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”). Most obviously, China has exploited this idea of what its officials like to term “cooling down” for now, playing up what is at best a skeletal draft framework on the code of conduct and shutting down attempts by non-claimants to interfere as it remains preoccupied with the 19th Party Congress later this year.

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Among Southeast Asian states, though a few, particularly Vietnam, remain anxious about this period of illusory calm, the other two Southeast Asian claimants, Malaysia and Brunei, do find some comfort in the fact that they, as one Southeast Asian official put it to me in June, “have just some time to breathe.” This reflects not just the divisions within ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, but also other dynamics beyond the issue itself such as the changing threat environment brought about by the Islamic State’s advances in the subregion, domestic politics with upcoming elections in Malaysia and Indonesia (a non-claimant but interested party, as I have noted before), and the growing pressure China is asserting on individual Southeast Asian states – from Vietnam to Singapore (See: “China: New White Paper, Old Asia Conundrum”).