The South China Sea Dispute: Navigating Diplomatic and Strategic Tensions

Authors: Ian Storey and Lin Cheng-yi, 2016

ISBN: 978-981-4695-55-8

Publisher: ISEAS Publishing

Year: 2016

Reviewed by Dr. R.Reviewed by Leo S.F. Lin, Ph.D. student, School of Social Science and Global Studies, The University of Southern Mississippi, USA.

The increased tension in the South China Sea has been a focal point in the Asia-Pacific region over the past decades. The geopolitical competition over natural resources, the modernization of military power, the rapid growth of the economy of regional actors, and the rise of nationalism, all have worsened the geopolitical rivalries among the involved countries and the great power – the United States. This book, titled South China Sea Dispute: Navigating Diplomatic and Strategic Tensions, is an edited volume by Ian Storey and Chen-yi Lin. This important work investigates key drivers of the South China Sea dispute and examines the main policies of the countries involved in the dispute.

There are twelve contributors in this book; all of them have a strong background in East and Southeast Asia issues. The two editors, Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Cheng-yi Lin, research fellow at the Academia Sinica, Taiwan, are internationally renowned scholars in the field. ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, published this book in 2016. Yusof Ishak Institute, an established autonomous organization, focusing on the socio-political, security, and economic trends and developments in Southeast Asia from within the region.

This book is composed of thirteen chapters. The first two chapters offer overviews of the dispute. In the introduction chapter, Ian Storey and Cheng-yi Lin offer an overview of the central aspects of the South China Sea dispute. They made several important points in this chapter. First, they argue that the South China Sea dispute has geopolitical significance and the vast sea area has become a hot spot in US – China competition. Next, they posit that China’s behavior has been the key variable and the tensions have been rising. Third, the absence of a political will has been the roadblocks to a resolution. Fourth, the authors examine how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have attempted to reduce tensions and to build trust among the alignment countries, including the confidence-building measures (CBMs) and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC). Finally, they look at why the stagnant of the current situation would endanger the peace, stability and prosperity of the region.

In Chapter 2, to clarify “a most complex web of conflicting maritime claims” (p.21), Clive Schofied investigates the competing claims to maritime jurisdictions that exist in the Sea. He also reviews the existing maritime boundary delimitation agreements and joint maritime arrangements, which has made some incremental progress. He argues that there “there is a limit to how far the complex and conflicting web of South China Sea claims and counter-claims can be disentangled” (p.34). In the absence of a clear understanding of those claims to jurisdictions, it is challenging to negotiate settlements or joint development of resources in the South China Sea.

The next two chapters focus on China and Taiwan. In Chapter 3, Mingjiang Li reviews the ongoing debates within the PRC since 2009. This chapter analyzes three aspects of the debate: “the various schools of thought that have emerged regarding what China’s response should be, policy proposals about how China should respond to the changing dynamics, and areas of consensus and disagreement” (p.48). The Chinese official stance maintains that the regional states fail to respect China’s rights and interests in the South China Sea. Thus, it is less likely that China would change its policy on the dispute. Nevertheless, Li argues that China will refrain from confrontation and “the combination of non-confrontation and assertiveness is likely to characterize China’s behavior in the South China Sea for the foreseeable future” (p.67).

In Chapter 4, Anne Hsiu-an Hsiao and Cheng-yi Lin compare Taiwan’s main policy development towards the South China Sea during the 24 years between 1992 and 2016. They explain Taiwan’s evolutionary policy approach under three Presidents. President Lee Teng-hui established a legal mechanism to strengthen Taiwan’s claims. President Chen Shui-bian promote Taiwan’s role as a party to the South China Sea dispute by taking concrete but controversial actions such as ordering the construction of an airstrip on Itu Aba. President Ma Ying-jeou strives to foster an environment conducive to cross-strait energy and other function cooperation. They concluded that Taiwan faces “ the increasingly complicated dual challenge of protecting the Republic of China (ROC)’s sovereignty and interests as a claimant without undermining progress already achieved in cross-strait relations or hampering its relations with Southeast Asian claimants and the United States” (p.96).

Both Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 focus on the roles of ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries in the dispute. In Chapter 5, Alice D. Ba situates the issue within the overall context of Southeast Asia’s relations with China, or what she called “within a picture picture” (p.105). Ba first provides an overview of relevant states’ core interests and concerns regarding the tensions in the South China Sea. Then she identifies primary contradictions which bring about enormous challenges for ASEAN, especially during the period of growing US – China rivalry in the region centered on the maritime dispute. She concluded that those tensions in the South China Sea had prompted all the parties in Southeast Asia to reassess existing strategies, priorities and relations, especially with China and the US.

In Chapter 6, Ian Storey how ASEAN as an organization has responded to the South China Sea dispute, as well as how individual states have approached the dispute. For the former, the focal point is the ASEAN – China conflict management process and the initiatives proposed to cope with China, such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) and the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (CoC). For the latter, Storey examines how ten ASEAN members view and respond to the dispute. The responses include diplomacy, force modernization, international legal arbitration and silence” (p.155). He concluded that ASEAN could not resolve the dispute, and the individual responses “have yielded mixed results and failed to influence China’s behavior” (p.155). Thus, the dispute will continue in the foreseeable future.

The next three chapters (Chapter 7 – 9) emphasize the claimants of three countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In Chapter 7, Aileen S.P. Baviera examines Philippine’s maritime claims and Philippine’s responses to protect its claims. Baviera first looks at Manila’s maritime claims and highlights the “deteriorating security seascape” (p.166) between China and the Philippines. In particular, China’s growing assertiveness and military posture have intensified its competition with the US. Baviera then assesses the impact on the Philippine security by looking at three different levels, including the impact of Sino – US competition, Philippine national interests, and the domestic drivers. To protect its territorial claims, economic rights and environmental concerns, the Philippines has relied on international legal arbitration and diplomacy due to its weak armed forces.

In Chapter 8, Hoan Anh Tuan argues that China has consistently increased assertiveness on its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea since 1949, attempting to dominate the entire maritime region. Nevertheless, China’s intention has increased tensions and complicated relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Tuan argues that China’s policy is counterproductive for the country’s long-term strategic interests. For Vietnam, it rejects China’s argument that the disputes are mainly bilateral. Instead, Vietnam views the disputes as “simultaneously bilateral, multilateral and international” (p.192). China’s assertiveness has caused severe distrust among ASEAN countries which in turn increases their defense budgets. Tuan posits that “China’s assertiveness has had consequences for Beijing’s strategic interests beyond Southeast Asia” (p.198), including its regional relationships, image and long-term national interests.

In Chapter 9, Elina Noor assesses Malaysia’s energy and geopolitical interests in the South China Sea. Energy resources are the primary driver behind Malaysia’s claim through the lens of geography and national security. Malaysia’s claim, as Noor argues, is “rooted in the normative conception of the post-Westphalian nation-state and its attendant principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity” (p.207). To move forward with its claim, Noor provides three options for Malaysia, including political, legal and diplomatic solutions. Politically speaking, Malaysia should not pick sides between the US and China, as it “would be strategic suicide for Malaysia” (p.217). In the legal aspect, Malaysia has to utilize international legal recourse. Diplomatically, Malaysia has to use both bilateral and multilateral negotiation mechanisms to mitigate the problem, both bilaterally with China and multilaterally with its ASEAN counterparts.

 The next three chapters (Chapter 10-12) assess the interests, roles and policies of the United States and Japan. In Chapter 10, Denny Roy provides the standpoints from the United States, where there are two “archetypal possibilities” (p.228): The first is a peaceful China that will conform to international norms and arrangements; the second possibility is that China will strive for regional hegemony. This dichotomy has affected the American policy towards the South China Sea disputes. The author argues that it can be expected that China will “demand a sphere of influence on its periphery and that these demands will grow stronger commensurate with China’s relative capabilities” (p.230). The U.S. has perceived China’s policy in the South China Sea as a threat to “freedom of navigation” (p.233), sharpening the strategic competition between the two countries. Roy concluded that China’s policy had challenged all the major American interests in South China Sea disputes, and this fundamental conflict of interests will antagonize bilateral relations in the future.

In Chapter 11, Yann-huei Song examines the impacts of the South China Sea dispute on the U.S. policy towards the region between 2009 and 2014. He first provides a discussion about ASEAN’s institutional approach and then discusses the US concerns and policy responses in the context of the development of US – ASEAN relations. Song posits that the dispute has served to promote closer ties between the US and ASEAN countries, and the US is committed to playing a major role in the South China Sea dispute dialogue process. Song concluded that the US has “benefited from rising tensions in the area, which from the perspective of ASEAN countries, is stimulated by growing Chinese assertiveness in the maritime domain and the rapid modernization of China’s armed forces, particularly the navy” (p.264-65). If the trend continues, Song argues, China’s national interests would be affected negatively in the future.

In Chapter 12, Yoichiro Sato posits that Japan, although it is not a party to the South China Sea dispute, is still an important player because of its strategic and economic interests in the region’s maritime domain. For Japan, the dispute would undermine its strategic and national interests as there is a “nexus” of the South and the East China Sea and Japan have territorial conflicts with China over the Senkaku/Diayu Islands in place. As for the economic perspective, Japan needs to secure the free flow of maritime trade and to prevent tensions from possible armed conflicts in the region. With its security commitments with the US, Japan keeps a close eye on the bilateral and multilateral solutions pertaining to the territorial and maritime boundary disputes in the South China Sea. Sato concludes that with the increasing Chinese assertive policies in the dispute, Tokyo opposes Beijing’s claim, primarily “based on a conventional interpretation of UNCLOS and is underpinned by the U.S. – Japan alliance” (p.284).  

In the concluding chapter Sotrey wraps up and identifies five common themes provided by the contributors in the previous chapters, which are “key to understanding the dispute and anticipating future developments” (p.291). First, all the contributors acknowledged that “the uninterrupted flow of seaborne commerce is vital for the economies of all countries in the region” (p.291). Second, many triggers are leading to the tensions, including rising nationalism over disputed atolls and waters, competition over the living and non-living resources, and the attempts by the various claimants to stake out extended continental shelf claims. The third theme is the growing power asymmetries between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. The fourth theme is the critical importance of the ASEAN – China conflict management process. Finally, the fifth major theme is “the complex legal dimension of the dispute and the importance that all parties abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)” (p.293). Storey concluded that “…if present trends continue, the geopolitical maneuvering between America and China could well determine how the South China Sea dispute develops over the next decade and beyond” (p.295).

To conclude, this book provides an overall pessimistic assessment in the South China Sea dispute, and the main reason is the assertive and bold actions taken by China under the decisive leadership by President Xi Jing-pin. Many authors have expressed concerns about the Chinese advancement of territorial and jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea, such as artificial island-building projects and the extensive infrastructure development on the islands.  

In the Asia-Pacific region, the South China Sea dispute is one of the most complex and critical issues shaping the regional security environment. After four years of publication of the book since 2016, the viewpoints presented in this book are still valid today. Although the relevant parties have attempted to find a solution to the long-standing problem, the result is less than encouraging. Many political, legal and security obstacles still thwart in front of the countries around the South China Sea, making it less possible to mitigate the dispute in the foreseeable future. In particular, the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China has made it unlikely, if not impossible, to make substantial progress on the South China Sea dispute.