Like a fashionista in a pantsuit in 2007, the DLR has been on to the South China Sea for aaaaaages. Back in the mid-2000s, when no one but us and a few lonely Australian academics cared, we drank deeply at the well of this most complex of maritime disputes, writing articles, proselytising, being ignored.
So, it is with some self-satisfaction and mild annoyance that we now read headlines (yes, headlines!) on internet news sites about the South China Sea. The topic has certainly been garnering greater media publicity over the past year and it touches on two issues close to our (and we’re sure your) collective hearts: the rise of China and gunboat diplomacy.
It might seem peculiar that the issue has become so newsworthy now. The South China Sea is a maritime disagreement that dates back decades and has regional countries citing centuries-old precedents to back up their claims. Six political entities dispute the region: Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, so it’s a complex balance of actors. In a bid to solidify their claims, some countries have militarily (or paramilitarily) occupied tiny, weeny islets in the sea, mostly in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam occupies the most, followed by the Philippines, China, Malaysia and then Taiwan with just one.
Military clashes have occurred in the region, notably between China and Vietnam in 1974 over the Paracel Islands and 1988 over some Spratly Islands, but by and large the South China Sea has been relatively peaceful. Recent posturing, though, has introduced the possibility of conflict again. Large military exercises held by China over the past year and its rapidly improving naval capabilities have unnerved Southeast Asian nations, spurring submarine purchases, starker rhetoric and hedging of relations with the US, to encourage its involvement as security guarantor. Even Vietnam, which hasn’t exactly been America’s best friend ever since that little war, has advocated Washington’s increased role in the South China Sea and even held small, joint naval exercises, much to Beijing’s chagrin.
Key events, such as the cutting of two PetroVietnam ships’ survey cables by Chinese paramilitary vessels in May and June and the harassment of a Philippine survey ship by the very same Chinese agency in March have indicated the rising tensions in the region, largely as a result of a more forceful diplomacy by China. In fact, the prioritisation of its maritime enforcement agencies and buying of many more and larger vessels suggests that China is looking to be more active in enforcing its claims in the South China Sea.
The rhetoric surrounding the dispute has also darkened considerably in recent weeks. An op-ed in one of China’s state-run newspapers, the Global Times, in June ran with the line, “If Vietnam wants to start a war, China has the confidence to destroy invading Vietnam battleships.” Punchy stuff.
Why this assertiveness now, when China appeared happy to let the dispute fester until very recently? This may be partly explained by Beijing’s greater confidence: its newfound military capabilities mean it can start to act with relative impunity when dealing with other regional states. It may also be partly to do with claims of large oil and gas reserves in the region, a factor that is becoming increasingly important for the big oil importers of Northeast Asia in these times of high oil prices. But it’s also because China is increasingly isolated on this issue; all states have in recent years submitted their claims on the South China Sea according to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It’s now glaringly apparent that China’s claims are indefensible under UNCLOS and it doesn’t really have a legal leg to stand on.
The result is the current situation, where countries manoeuvre gunboats in ostentatious displays of their power to intimidate potential rivals, jostle each other in paramilitary vessels, aim to further expand or solidify their position in the South China Sea and generally tool up for a scrap. Military action isn’t certain, by any means, and there remains a thin veneer of collaborative negotiations over the dispute, particularly through the talking shop that is ASEAN. But it’s also increasingly clear that there are some intractable disagreements here, and given the US’ avowed determination to be involved in the security of the South China Sea, the stakes are high if China and Vietnam in particular decide that war war is better than jaw jaw.