[OPINION] The South China Sea precedent: Rising instability amidst revisionist tendencies


Asia’s Post-World War II order is on the verge of a terminal decline. What can the region do in response?

Across the Indo-Pacific, rising economic dependence has enabled Beijing to revise the nature of international relations and a rules-based order underpinned by adherence to international treaty-based law. The rapidity of the associated shift in the balance of political and military power was also enabled by America’s neglect of the region following its war on terror and then the 2007-08 global financial Crisis.

Despite the implicit acknowledgement of this through the United States’ “pivot” and later “rebalance,” this “reengagement” was undermined by the Obama administration’s pacifism with China and then President Trump’s election. The results include the consolidation of revisionist policies in breach of international law, unchecked coercion against other regional states, and reduced confidence in the US security umbrella. To this end, the rules-based order has gradually eroded, and a more anarchical and militaristic environment is filling the void.

Beijing’s rising assertiveness

The collapsing regional order might start with the war on terror but contending Asian perspectives regarding China and the US have become increasingly polarized since the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Beijing’s early “charm offensive” has since been supplanted by more coercive actions and the most divisive issue, at least for East Asia, has been the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Despite ASEAN’s engagement since 1992, China has most significantly breached the norms of the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and then it also breached the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) through activities like the creation and militarization of large-scale artificial islands.

Regionally, China’s 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from Manila was a “watershed event.” The Obama administration’s attempt to negotiate a withdrawal by Beijing and Manila from the shoal failed. However, the ultimate pivot point was Beijing’s rapid construction of nearly 1,300 hectares of artificial islands from early 2013.

Despite the first reference to possible land reclamation by a Philippine news article on July 31, 2013, comprehensive imagery of the artificial islands was not publicly available until February 2015. By this time, the US and its allies had, intentionally or not, bypassed international pressure to prevent the island construction – e.g. a naval blockade – as the substance of the island construction was by then a fait accompli.

Containment or enablement?

The Chinese government and its state-owned media claim that Beijing is a victim of unjustified containment policies by the US and its allies. They point to developments like the stationing of marines in Darwin and then US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. However, there has been very little tangible “containment” of Beijing’s behavior.

For some Asian nations, the failure of the international community to take decisive action to deter Beijing’s flagrant breaches of international law and the “rules-based order” was even more noteworthy than Beijing’s actual breach of UNCLOS.

Consequently, in March 2018 Vietnam abandoned its “Red Emperor” oil site when Beijing threatened to attack Vietnam’s Spratly outposts. Vietnam had initially postponed drilling there but, despite a US Navy carrier port visit a week earlier, Hanoi felt that it had to capitulate to Beijing’s demands. The possible loss of the South China Sea – “in all scenarios short of war” – for all relevant stakeholders has been reflected in public statements from past and present senior US and Australian military officers.