What the South China Sea tells us about the new geopolitics of Southeast Asia



China’s actions in the South China Sea show what the next stage of geopolitics in Southeast Asia will look like. As China projects its power amid the pandemic, ASEAN governments will see their economies and development further defined by how they embrace or contest Beijing’s agenda.


When the lockdowns are lifted and borders reopen, governments in Southeast Asia will wake up to a geopolitical reality in which relations with China define nations’ development, economies and security. This process was already underway before the pandemic set in but as states are occupied with the impacts of COVID-19, its pace has accelerated and the consequences have shifted.

In terms of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, many development and infrastructure projects are on hold and their futures will depend on how the economies of host countries recover—in some cases China will be able to step in and offer support, furthering Beijing’s influence and interdepence. In others, devastated domestic economies will mean existing Chinese support is increasingly valuable. The impacts will depend dramatically on how host countries handle the consequences of COVID-19.

Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, on the other hand, already offer key indications of what this next stage of geopolitics in Southeast Asia will look like. As China projects its power amid the pandemic, Southeast Asian governments will increasingly see their economies and development defined by how they embrace or contest Beijing’s agenda.

China is making use of COVID-19 in the South China Sea

Last week, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank in a disputed area of the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands. The Vietnamese government says a Chinese coast guard ship rammed the fishing boat and sank it. China claims the Vietnamese boat entered the area illegally to fish, refused to leave and then ran into the coast guard ship—not the other way around—before sinking itself.

No one was killed—the Chinese vessel picked up the eight fishermen on board and passed them on to two other Vietanmese fishing boats in the area.

The Vietnamese foreign ministry said in a statement that “the Chinese vessel committed an act that violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa [Paracel] archipelago and threatened the lives and damaged the property and legitimate interests of Vietnamese fishermen.”

Map: Voice of America
China asserts rights to 90% of the land, water and seabed that falls within a boundary known as the nine-dash line, which stretches 2,000 kilometres from the Chinese mainland and comes within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. To support China’s claims, its military has also built over 3,000 acres of artificial islands over the past 10 years.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared the claim illegal in 2016 after the Philippines brought a case under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. The court also determined that China’s moves to build artificial islands, still ongoing, are illegal under international law, due in part to their extremely detrimental environmental impacts.

China and Vietnam have a history of clashes in the area, including an altercation last July in which a Chinese research boat and two coast guard ships violated Vietnam’s claims to waters around the Vanguard Bank. Less than a month earlier, China conducted ballistic missile tests in the area.

Last week’s incident shows that China is doing all it can to pursue its geopolitical and economic agenda during the pandemic. Beijing isn’t waiting to see how the effects of COVID-19 play out. In cases where it can pursue “face mask diplomacy,” China is stepping into a new role as benefactor—sometimes at a cost, but without all the debt attached to Belt and Road projects.

China is using the time to turn its claims to the energy-rich territory into geopolitical realities. In late March, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources announced that it had extracted a world record-breaking amount of natural gas from gas hydrates in the South China Sea.

Washington condemned China’s “aggression” but can do little else

The US Department of State issued a statement saying the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat was the “latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.” The US called on China to “stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”

The US also highlighted that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China has added “research stations” to two of its military bases and deployed additional military aircraft in the contested area.

But as the US scrambles to deal with the toll of COVID-19 at home, its relations with China are largely nonfunctional and it has little influence on the changing geopolitics of Southeast Asia. The US can support ASEAN states in condemning China’s actions, but with multiple US aircraft carriers in the Asia-Pacific out of commission due to COVID-19, it doesn’t have the leverage to pressure Beijing into respecting the sovereignty of Vietnam, the Philippines or any other state.

China can turn the South China Sea into a non-issue

With the country already on the path to recovery from coronavirus, China can assert a new reality in the South China Sea with little opposition.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to the US by saying that Washington has tried to “artificially create a problem.”

“The US has sent out military aircraft and vessels frequently to the South China Sea as provocation and violated China’s sovereignty and security. It also used maritime incidents to start trouble,” the Foreign Ministry spokesperson told reporters.

Any ASEAN response will be limited

ASEAN governments may object to China’s claims, but they will still look to the biggest player in the region to set the economic and development agenda. Vietnam is currently chair of ASEAN and if it weren’t for the pandemic, Hanoi would be pushing a resolution of the South China Sea conflict as a key piece of its ASEAN platform.

In the days prior to the incident last Thursday, Radio Free Asia reported that another Chinese coast guard ship was patrolling in an area of the South China Sea near the Philippines, inside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“As countries look inward or are distracted [by the COVID-19 pandemic], like the U.S. and Japan, China has taken advantage of that by increasing its activities in the South China Sea,” said Jose Antonio Custodio, defense analyst at the Institute of Policy, Strategy and Developmental Studies in Manila. “We may soon see more unilateral exploitation of our EEZ.”

Southeast Asian governments are already seeking support from one another as well as China to combat COVID-19—both in terms of the virus and its economic and development impacts. As ASEAN or as individual states, they’re unable to challenge Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea.

This is indicative of how COVID-19 is cementing a geopolitics in which Southeast Asia’s prospects for development, security and trade are dictated by how its leaders support or reject Beijing’s goals. However long the pandemic lasts, ASEAN’s options for the future will be increasingly defined by how well governments balance domestic and Chinese interests and how well they partner with Beijing.

What the South China Sea tells us about the new geopolitics of Southeast Asia