Despite some setbacks, the United States has not lost influence in the vital waterway.
The last two months saw an uptick in tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) following a period of relative calm since the arbitral tribunal at the Hague handed down its historic and sweeping award on maritime entitlements in the SCS, overwhelmingly favoring Manila over Beijing. After a year of successfully diminishing the legal and diplomatic impact of the unfavorable ruling, China has resumed a pattern of brazen intimidation against its fellow SCS claimants.
In July, Beijing bullied Hanoi into suspending oil drilling in a disputed oil block 250 nautical miles off the southeast coast of Vietnam. China reportedly threatened that it would attack Vietnamese bases in the Spratly Islands if the oil drilling did not cease immediately. A month later, Beijing sent a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats, escorted by People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) ships and Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to Thitu Island, the largest land feature claimed and occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands.
The purpose of the deployment remains unclear, but some have speculated that it may have been a coercive demonstration to dissuade Manila from carrying out announced infrastructure repairs and upgrades on Thitu; or a more provocative move of posturing (or threatening) to blockade or even land on one or more of the adjoining unoccupied sand bars. If the latter, however unlikely, it would suggest a similar modus operandi to the illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and a destabilizing escalation with strategic ramifications if one of those sand bars includes Sand Cay – an unoccupied high-water feature that could affect the sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction of nearby Chinese-claimed Subi Reef (one of China’s seven artificial islands in the SCS). As per United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Subi Reef cannot generate its own territorial sea, but it has the potential to supersede a territorial sea claim from Sandy Cay because the distance between them (unlike Thitu) is less than 12nm.
Also of consequence was the disappointing outcome of the 24th Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila 2-8 August. The joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting mostly favored China’s positions over those of the United States, Australia, and Japan. Beijing wanted no discussion or reference to its claims or activities in the SCS, last year’s arbitration ruling, and need for an ASEAN Code of Conduct (COC). Washington, meanwhile, advocated for the implementation of the 2016 arbitration decision and a substantive and legally binding COC. In the end, Chinese positions largely won out. The communique wording was far less forceful and China-specific than Vietnam and the United States and its allies preferred. Indeed, it was sufficiently ambiguous that Beijing and its supporters within ASEAN could tolerate and accept – another successful diplomatic obstruction on China’s part.
So, what does all of this means for the region and the United States? Part one of this two-part series provides perspectives and context to the strategic question. Part two examines ways and means the United States could turn the tide and regain the strategic initiative, recover the high ground of regional influence, and stave off losing the SCS.