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A nation must think before it acts.
In May 2000, Philippines president Joseph Estrada visited Beijing and signed five accords to ease tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea. It is surely encouraging to see two countries that have sparred in recent years take steps to resolve their differences peacefully. At the same time, however, skeptics will suggest another motive behind the agreements: In March, India and Vietnam signed agreements that included Indian assistance in rebuilding Vietnam’s navy, and soon afterward the Indian press also reported that Indian naval vessels would conduct exercises in the South China Sea later this year.
Taken together, these developments point up the elaborate political currents flowing through an area that for thirty years has been a locus of competition and conflict. Various reefs, islands, and waterways in the South China Sea are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The diffuse and overlapping claims simultaneously hold out the possibility for a negotiated settlement and create obstacles that could ensure that disputes continue to simmer.
A number of factors enhance the potential to resolve tensions bloodlessly in the South China Sea. First, the South China Sea disputes center around a maritime zone considerably removed from the political centers of power. Rival claims do not threaten the existence of any state or government.
Second, the numerous claims tend to reduce the likelihood that a stalemate between any two countries could impede overall progress in multilateral negotiations. Given the states claiming sovereignty, the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is one obvious mechanism to utilize in seeking a lasting and broad solution.
Third, because the various parties involved have different motivations for their claims, it is possible that the primary requirements of each of them can be accommodated. China is primarily concerned about sovereignty. Certainly the natural resources of the South China Sea are of considerable interest, but Beijing may be amenable to sharing resources in exchange for formal acknowledgement that the islands and waters are China’s. Southeast Asian states seem primarily interested in the potential oil and natural gas reserves and the vast fisheries of the region. Outside powers such as Japan, Australia, and the United States seek to preserve freedom of navigation through a strategic waterway.
There are also, however, several considerable obstacles to a negotiated solution. China’s behavior and intentions will be most important in this regard because China is one of the most likely belligerents in any conflict. Not only does China lay claim to the greatest area of any of the countries involved, but it also has demonstrated, in flare-ups with Vietnam and the Philippines, that it is willing to pursue its claims militarily.
In recent years China has sparred with the Philippines over disputed islands in and around the Spratly chain. While there have been no pitched sea battles, China has gradually extended its reach in the South China Sea through increased air and sea patrols, and larger and more permanent outposts on reefs and islands. Chinese fishing fleets have also become more active, and Beijing has granted permission to foreign companies to explore for oil.
In the 1970s and 1980s the main belligerents were Vietnam and China. In 1974 China took advantage of the disintegration of the regime in South Vietnam to seize the Paracel Islands in a minor naval engagement. Fourteen years later Chinese naval forces battled Vietnamese gunboats and captured several islands in the Spratlys.
In addition to the possibility of renewed clashes with Vietnam or the Philippines, another possible scenario involves a clash between China and Taiwan, which occupies one island in the Spratlys and another several hundred miles to the north. Seizing them would offer China a way to ratchet up pressure on Taiwan with a military operation that does not risk failure and has virtually zero danger of escalation. Taiwan would likely be able to offer only token defense, having recently trimmed the naval garrisons on both islands and shifted control of the islands from Taipei’s Ministry of National Defense to the Coast Guard Administration.
China is clearly the most ambitious and assertive claimant to maritime territory in the South China Sea. While it has refrained from launching an all-out military operation to expel the forces of other states, it has engaged in what might be called “Slow Intensity Conflict.” Unlike low intensity conflict, slow intensity conflict entails the possibility of conventional warfighting between the regular armed forces of different states, primarily small units battling in minor and infrequent skirmishes. In addition, slow intensity conflict may involve the use of diplomatic and economic pressure and propaganda. Escalation of such a conflict tends to be slow and incremental, thereby impeding the efforts of any other party to focus international attention on a suspected violation and coordinate a response with neighbors.
None of the parties laying claim to territory in the South China Sea — including China — has any interest in seeing a full-scale war break out. But China has clearly understood the advantages of slow intensity conflict. Although Beijing claims to seek negotiated solutions to the disputes and advocates joint exploitation of the region’s natural resources, its record of actions belies its cooperative rhetoric. It appears to be attempting to lull the other claimants into believing that no conflict exists. Moreover, given the inherent difficulties with command, control, and communications in this remote area, China can expect its activities to attract little response from its opponents.
The countries of Southeast Asia and the major powers in the Asia-Pacific region should carefully monitor the actions of China to ensure that they remain consistent with the agreements recently signed in Beijing. At the same time, while such bilateral accords are a positive step, they are unlikely to prove an adequate substitute for a multilateral settlement. Talks between ASEAN and China on devising a regional code of conduct acceptable to all parties should continue. The incremental expansion of China’s claims and capabilities in the South China Sea has not brought tensions there to the level of crisis, but the absence of crisis does not mean that other states’ interests are secure.