The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes, Rising Tensions
Tensions are on the rise in the South China Sea. Longstanding sovereignty disputes over the profusion of atolls, shoals and reefs that dot the 1.2 million square miles of sea, allied to extensive overlapping claims to maritime space, have been a source of serious interstate contention over the years, especially during the 1990s. A brief easing of tensions occurred in the first half of this decade due in part to China's more accommodating and flexible attitude, which was part of a diplomatic "charm offensive" toward Southeast Asia intended to assuage regional anxieties over the country's growing economic, political and military clout. Over the past several years, however, China has reverted to a more assertive posture to consolidate its jurisdictional claims, expanding its military reach and seeking to undermine the claims of other states through coercive diplomacy. Examples of China's renewed hard-line include increased naval patrols in the South China Sea, pressure on foreign oil corporations to cease operations in contested waters, the establishment of administrative units to oversee its claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, the unilateral imposition of fishing bans, and the asperity of its responses to the outer continental shelf submissions to the United Nations by other claimants. Moreover, the recent assertion by China's ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that the territorial dispute is a bilateral and not a multilateral issue suggests Beijing has reverted to the uncompromising position it held in the 1990s. Yet at the same time, China insists it is committed to a peaceful resolution of the dispute in accordance with international law and joint exploitation of maritime resources. Escalating rivalry in the South China Sea should concern policymakers for two key reasons. First, the South China Sea is home to key arteries of global commerce and is an important theater of operations for regional and extra-regional navies. In particular, the U.S. Navy depends on the South China Sea sea-lanes for rapid deployments between the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Second, the body of water is a potential source of energy resources crucial to the continued economic advancement of East Asian states. The South China Sea is also a proven and significant source of marine life of utmost importance to human and food security in the region. Failure to address rising tensions could lead to greater regional instability, disruptions to global trade and economic development, environmental degradation and, worst-case scenario, military confrontation. Current measures in place to manage and mitigate tensions in the South China Sea have proven ineffective. The premier regional organization, ASEAN, whose membership includes four claimants in the dispute-Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam-has been in discussions with China over the dispute for over a decade, with little to show in terms of tangible outcomes. The only extant agreement between ASEAN and China to address the dispute directly, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), has deterred claimants from occupying vacant features in the South China Sea. Yet, the agreement is not a legally binding document and has failed to prevent states from building up their physical infrastructure on the disputed islands. Moreover, confidence building measures (CBMs) outlined in the DoC have failed to promote meaningful cooperation. Similarly, efforts toward negotiating a more formal and binding Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea have been unavailing.
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