The Council on Geostrategy’s online magazine

About | Contributors | Submissions

Where next for South China Sea stabilisation?

Stabilising the South China Sea remains somewhat an enigma. Today’s disputes have been going on for decades, with claims changing hands between regimes and states engaging in open conflict over the rock and reefs there in this time. Since 2013, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has asserted itself more in defence of its claims, and continues to breach international law and established norms. And claimant states have responded by exerting themselves more unilaterally, as well as by entering into enhanced, or new, agreements with others. So where next for South China Sea stabilisation? We asked nine experts in today’s Big Ask.

Peter Dutton, US Naval War College

Stay the course. Current American strategy to support the Philippines in the South China Sea could be labelled ‘delay with purpose’. It is the right strategy for the right reasons. 

American naval power and security guarantees deter Chinese use of military force, causing Beijing to use lower-level coercive measures to make incremental gains more slowly. Meanwhile, building coastal state capacity, creating information-sharing systems, and expanding other forms of political and security cooperation among Southeast Asian claimant states create conditions for them to work together to better counter the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and pursue their sovereign rights and economic interests on their own. 

Beijing knows that if it pushes too far, it is likely to face rapidly expanded military integration between the United States (US) and its regional partners. Since the fundamental purpose of American forces in East Asia is to maintain the regional balance of power, this would only play into American hands. Thus, while for the time being Beijing may make small gains in relation to its neighbours, its strategy will either result in increased regional capacity to oppose it, or an expanded US military presence in the region. If Beijing seeks regional hegemony, its approach to the South China Sea is self-defeating.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

International maritime norms are coming under increasing pressure every day in the South China Sea. Beijing’s actions essentially amount to bullying other nations in the region in a bid to force them to accept the PRC’s illegitimate claims. These actions are conducted mostly via the PRC’s coast guard and maritime militia, but ever present behind this coercion is the looming regional behemoth of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Chinese fleet. This asymmetry in hard power between the PLAN and the navies of other much smaller countries in the region makes it hard for regional actors to stand up to the PRC as much as they would like to. Beijing builds on this asymmetry by attempting to address specific issues at the bilateral level, where it has more leverage. 

International maritime norms are vital to British interests and the United Kingdom (UK) should play a leading role in upholding them in the South China Sea. This should come in two forms. First, by encouraging and supporting multilateral groups in confronting Chinese claims and any aggressive action to undermine Beijing’s efforts to address confrontations at the bilateral level. Increasing collaboration at the diplomatic level with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where the UK is a ‘dialogue partner’, and at the military level through the Five Power Defence Arrangements, would be a sound approach. Further, a more permanent and stronger naval presence in the form of at least one frigate or destroyer based permanently near the region, in addition to the planned ‘pulsed’ deployments (e.g., Carrier Strike Group 25), would help add weight to rebalancing the naval asymmetry in the region, and further complicate Chinese calculations.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

There is a bigger picture behind the ongoing confrontations between the PRC and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Although the current focus is on two tiny reefs, the Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal, there is a wider strategic game being played. 

The PRC is pressuring the Philippines into abandoning its upgraded security relationship with the US. It wants to drive a wedge between Washington and one of its key partners in Southeast Asia as part of its overall aim to fracture the American-led security architecture in the region. The ultimate objective is to reduce American influence on the western side of the Pacific Ocean and replace it with a Chinese-led regional order. 

Outside powers need to take this ‘big picture’ into account when considering their policies and actions in Southeast Asia. The priority must be to enhance the resilience of governments in the region, give them options beyond Beijing, or even the US-PRC binary, and demonstrate publicly their continuing interest in strategic stability.

Hunter Marston, La Trobe Asia

Three trends dominated the last year in the context of the PRC’s continuing harassment of smaller claimants in the South China Sea. The first was the policy of ‘assertive transparency’ spearheaded by Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Junior, President of the Philippines. Manila used creative techniques to monitor, publicise, and raise public awareness of the PRC’s unlawful behaviour in Philippine waters. The Marcos administration successfully stood up to Beijing and mobilised public sentiment, something which gives it increased latitude to expand security cooperation with the US, particularly in the implementation of the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement and new bases in the country’s north.

The second notable development was increased intra-regional security cooperation, as demonstrated by the recent agreement announced by the Philippines and Vietnam during Marcos’ visit to Hanoi in January.

A third development to pay attention to is Japan’s recently announced Official Security Assistance framework, which has further cemented Tokyo’s central role in supporting the maritime domain awareness and coast guard capacities of likeminded Southeast Asian states, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Going forward, Indo-Pacific countries are likely to further deepen intraregional cooperation, partly in response to uncertainty regarding the US elections in November. Regional states will seek to lock in gains and institutionalise strategic partnerships to hedge against possible inattention (or worse) under a second Trump administration as well as continued coercion from the PRC in the South China Sea.

Nga Pham, Journalist

The best Vietnam could wish for is to keep the status quo in the South China Sea. From Hanoi’s perspective, the last few years have been relatively quiet, despite the PRC’s ongoing campaign of assertiveness and recent tensions between Beijing and Manila. Vietnam has been actively expanding military-to-military cooperation with other countries, including the PRC, and fortifying its outposts in the Spratlys quietly without much interference and protest from other claimants. However, it will be a real test to see how long the current situation can be maintained.

So far, Hanoi’s ‘bamboo diplomacy’ which allows it to ‘bend with the wind but never break’ has been successful. But the growing partnership with the US and its allies requires more strategic commitment and will eventually lead to discontentment by other traditional partners such as the PRC and Russia. Indeed, Beijing could not be too happy about the maritime cooperation agreements which Hanoi signed with Manila during Marcos’s visit earlier this year. 

Sooner or later, Vietnam will find its balancing act more and more difficult to sustain. If a conflict, even a small-scale, limited one, erupts between the PRC and the Philippines or between the PRC and Taiwan, Hanoi will have to act. As the PRC and ASEAN negotiate a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, Vietnam would also want to ensure any final agreement does not infringe upon its sovereignty and benefits, something which is not obtainable without a lot of compromise and even sacrifice. Will Hanoi, and more importantly, the Vietnamese public, be ready to sacrifice their interests in the name of stabilisation?

Dung Phan, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

Like the Philippines, Vietnam frequently faces the PRC’s maritime harassment. To strengthen its deterrence against the PRC, Vietnam has fortified its outposts in the Spratlys subtley and enhanced defence and maritime security ties with the US and other major powers. Vietnam is also outspoken in its opposition to the PRC’s nine-dash line claims, and militarisation of the South China Sea.

However, Vietnam’s South China Sea strategy differs from the Philippines as it does not rely on an alliance with the US. Instead, Hanoi maintains a non-aligned posture and tries to keep the South China Sea dispute from negatively impacting its overall relationship with Beijing. Vietnam learned from the 1979 border war that forming an alliance to balance against the PRC may trigger aggression from its northern neighbour.

Maintaining cordial ties with the PRC also supports Vietnam’s political stability, as both countries have a shared interest in guarding against the ‘peaceful evolution’ of their ruling communist parties. In fact, party-to-party ties provide an important direct channel for the two countries to manage and de-escalate maritime tensions. For these reasons, Hanoi will not copy Manila’s playbook, but will persist in practising its pragmatic and flexible ‘bamboo diplomacy’.

Ahmad Rizky M. Umar, University of Queensland

Indonesia’s response to crises in the South China Sea and stabilisation efforts there will depend on the domestic politics and foreign policy team of the new president. Indonesia held a general election on 14th February this year, and it is likely that the former Army General Prabowo Subianto will win the election. 

Subianto had the backing of incumbent president Joko Widodo, who has generally based his foreign policy on utilising ASEAN as the primary instrument to deal with any potential South China Sea crisis. It can be said that Indonesia generally believes that accelerating the negotiation of the South China Sea Code of Conduct through ASEAN is the key to stabilise the region. The deadline for negotiations is 2026, and ASEAN and the PRC have so far agreed on a guideline to resolve tensions in the sea peacefully. However, ASEAN’s role in resolving potential crises proved to be limited after the Sierra Madre incident of August 2023; due to ASEAN’s sometimes onerous consensus decision-making process, several claimant countries – like Vietnam or the Philippines – look for alternative institutional means for conflict resolution outside ASEAN. 

Subianto is more sceptical of ASEAN than his predecessor. But Indonesia has also engaged with the PRC through the Belt and Road Initiative under Widodo, which will affect Subianto’s engagement with Beijing. It is likely that he will seek alternative means to deal with the PRC through bilateral means, rather than sticking to ASEAN mechanisms.

Sharon Seah, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

ASEAN’s long-held preference is to address complex South China Sea disputes cautiously, focusing on diplomacy and multilateralism through the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, and concluding negotiations for a binding COC. However, the geopolitical environment has changed drastically since 2018, particularly with the rise in US-PRC tensions. 

In respect to the South China Sea, the PRC has constantly sought to alter the status quo by increasing militarisation and constructing installations in disputed maritime zones. The effectiveness of ASEAN’s stabilising efforts is therefore debatable. Its consensus-driven approach and principle of non-interference often leads to a lack of a unified stance, causing bilateral tensions to flare. The PRC’s aggressive territorial assertions and military expansion further challenges ASEAN’s unity and decision-making capabilities, especially in a situation when some ASEAN Chairs are perceived as weaker and susceptible to external influences than others.

ASEAN’s role in promoting peace and stability is vital, yet its ability to significantly influence dynamics in the South China Sea is hindered by internal and external challenges under the shadow of great power rivalry. The recent maritime agreement signed between the Philippines and Vietnam to improve coast guard capabilities, and Japan’s offer of new Official Security Assistance to regional countries, can be interpreted as countries exercising their agency in response to the altered geopolitical environment, and to counter growing Chinese assertiveness.

Damien Symon, The Intel Lab

Within the complexities of the South China Sea, the better use of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) will enable stakeholders to make informed decisions and react proactively to emerging threats.  

By harnessing publicly available sources, OSINT can serve as a cornerstone for preemptive alerts of significant magnitude. It would empower researchers with a disciplined approach to track developments and identify potential threats, thus fostering a proactive stance in security measures. As this discipline evolves periodically – transcending traditional boundaries by incorporating data from an array of sources, such as commercial satellite imagery, social media platforms, the dark web, and literature – one of OSINT’s hallmarks is the potential for additional sources to emerge constantly.

Researchers practising this methodology in the South China Sea can track numerous grey zone tactics, illegal practices, and monitor maritime belligerence aimed at disrupting the peace in the region. The application of OSINT to unveil truths hidden within the high seas also enables authorities to combat fake news, propaganda, and disinformation effectively. In the South China Sea, where overlapping territorial ambitions and growing information warfare persist, OSINT-supported media reporting assumes a pivotal role, serving to engage public opinion and counter unfounded claims effectively.

Join our mailing list!

Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *