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Can conflict in the South China Sea be prevented?

Updated: Feb 11, 2019




Whilst disputes over the South China Sea are a remarkably modern phenomenon within South-East Asian diplomacy, their roots in the emergent nationalist movements of the early 20th century and consolidation during the latter stages of the Cold War preclude any effective conflict prevention. Although subsidiary disputes revolving around the plethora of natural resources within the region, and the freedoms of trade and navigation, could be prevented through mutual compromise, the fundamental conflict over sovereignty within the region cannot be prevented. In particular, given the fraught nature of the domestic legitimisation mission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the marked strategic vulnerability of both coastal cities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and open ocean access, the sweeping demands of the ostensibly ludicrous nine dash line should serve to perpetuate conflict for the foreseeable future. Despite the current futility of the PRC military position, any conflict short of a direct military confrontation has pertinent domestic political benefits for the CCP, with increasing PRC consolidation of the region likely only to embolden the military leadership to enforce its territorial claims. Indeed taking conflict to mean a serious and protracted disagreement between states with opposing interests such an underlying conflict has undoubtedly already begun on the ideological and diplomatic fronts, occasionally yet consistently reaching violent confrontation and trade, ‘wars,’ most notably between the United States of America and their associated allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the PRC.


The first and most widely cited source of potential conflict within the South China Sea, yet one which should prove preventable, is without question that of the wide array of natural resources available for extraction from within the region. Such a dispute primarily exists between the PRC and ASEAN, the latter of which having resolved their internal disputes with the exception of the relatively minor concern of the Natuna Islands.[1] Indeed with the United States Energy Information Administration estimating that around eleven billion barrels of crude oil in addition to 266 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are contained within the South China Sea, the potential benefits both for a PRC government wishing to satisfy its burgeoning domestic demand, and to ASEAN states attempting to free themselves from the economic and frequently political shackles of energy dependency upon their neighbour, should not be understated. Moreover, immense stocks of fish, particularly of yellowfin tuna, merely serve to exacerbate disputes arising from largely spurious claims to historical fishing rights.[2] With migration to the region’s coastal cities having rapidly increased within recent years around half a billion people now live within 100 miles of the coastline of the South China Sea, a density which serves to further enhance the potential economic benefits to the state or states who are able to secure a monopoly upon the associated natural resources.[3] Such disputes have frequently escalated into direct confrontations, most seriously in January 2005 when PRC coastguard vessels fired upon two Vietnamese fishing boats, killing nine fishermen before the remaining eight were detained. Recent PRC and Vietnamese attempts to exploit oil reserves have seen an exceptional backlash within both nations, yet it must be considered from where the root cause of such disputes emanates. Regardless of the undoubted material value of the resources concerned, it should be noted that domestic coal production satisfies the vast majority of PRC demands, with the fundamental source of their outrage stemming from a profound sense of historical entitlement to the region.[4] Although ASEAN demands fundamentally stem from a will to mitigate energy dependency upon the PRC, Chinese demands stem both from nationalist entitlement and from the strategic benefits of control of the islands and waterways within the South China Sea. Hence, Deng Xiaoping’s proposal to develop the region on the principles of joint development of resources and joint protection of the environment, in return for ASEAN acceptance of PRC sovereignty, highlights a longstanding PRC will to compromise on the issue of natural resources in favour of sovereignty concerns and so a significant avenue for conflict prevention.[5] In particular, given the rapid expansion of western business interests both in mainland China and the oil resources of the South China Sea and the subsequent reluctance of western governments to rebuke Chinese claims to such resources, a multilateral agreement on the lines of that signed in 1974 between South Korea and Japan over the Sea of Japan could serve to prevent any serious conflict, from emerging in the region as a direct result of competing claims to natural resources.


The second, yet still fundamentally subsidiary and ultimately preventable source of potential conflict within the South China Sea is that of the disputes arising from competing demands for the various trade and navigational routes within the region. Such a dispute fundamentally exists between the PRC and ASEAN, with United States involvement notably greater than with natural resources alone.[6] With up to a third of all global container shipping estimated to transit the South China Sea, and the Strait of Malacca in particular estimated to carry around half of all global oil shipments, the immediate economic value derived through the ability to tariff or control even a relatively small portion of such trade should not be understated.[7] With ASEAN reliance upon such traffic having grown from 29% of total trade in 1980 to 41% at the present day, PRC control, whether partial or complete, of such traffic would furthermore compound the economic and political dependence of such states upon their neighbour, hence accentuating the wider global concern within the issue.[8] Indeed as recently as 2018 the United States National Defence Strategy accused Beijing of using, “predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea,” highlighting in particular the potential for the PRC to attempt to enforce an Air Defence Identification Zone or naval exclusion zone throughout the region, which would amount to endangering the free flow of trade and threatening the sovereignty of local nations.[9] On the other hand, the PRC Foreign Ministry frequently cites the potential for the US Navy to seal access to the Strait of Malacca, and effectively embargo port cities such as Guangzhou and Hong Kong, as its justification for a continual and expanding military presence within the region. However, the fundamentally contemporary and even superficial nature of such disputes should serve to underline their ultimate preventability. With even the most cynical western commentators forced to admit that ROC claims to the South China Sea stem from no later than the early 1930s, prior the widespread industrialisation of the region, disputes over such trading lanes have never constituted more than an emergent offshoot of the underlying disputes surrounding the consolidation of Chinese nationalism.[10] Moreover, with the Strait of Malacca under Malaysian and Indonesian sovereignty, and indeed well beyond the boundaries of the nine-dash line, any attempt by the PRC to halt or hamper trade within the region would prove disastrously counterproductive due to the inevitable closing of the strait to PRC trade and other traffic. Whilst such a concern may not ultimately prevent the PRC from entering into a conflict involving trade within the region, it would certainly preclude the motivations for such a conflict from emanating purely from the disputes over trading and navigational rights themselves. Therefore, conflict within the South China Sea based upon trade and navigational rights would be preventable in isolation due to the mutual dependency of all sides upon the trade resources contained within the region.


However, whilst conflict within the South China Sea on the grounds of the natural resources or trading and navigational rights could be prevented in isolation, their association with the emergent nationalist movements of the twentieth century, and hence with the domestic legitimisation mission of the CCP may preclude such prevention. Such disputes fundamentally exist between the PRC and ASEAN, with the United States typically only associating itself in the event of a perceived threat to freedom of navigation.[11] Although the potential for conflict within the region is typically portrayed, particularly amongst western media outlets, as solely the product of economic disputes and a strategic rivalry between the PRC and ASEAN, in practice the underlying association of such disputes with a relatively modern nationalist surge within the region provides the emotional charge and populist appeal to enable the outbreak of conflict. Indeed without the various, and in particular the PRC claims to sovereignty of the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, disputes over natural resources and hence over trading and navigational rights would almost certainly resolve themselves through a system of joint development, as proposed by Deng Xiaoping, given that the vast majority of the region would immediately become international waters under the sole jurisdiction of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the tacit PRC acceptance following the UNCLOS tribunal ruling on the same convention that claims to such resources are illegitimate without sovereignty of the islands. However, the nine-dash line itself originated as an eleven-dash line when first proposed by the ROC in December 1947, a document inevitably tarred with the nationalist fervour associated with the Chinese Civil War and the decades of national humiliation throughout the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and the Second World War.[12] With the Spratly Islands having been historically regarded as obstacles and navigational aids rather than sovereign territory (regardless of Chinese claims of ancient sovereignty), the Chinese claims to the region cannot be effectively traced earlier than the French occupation of the islands during the 1930s, and indeed here can only be traced to the nationalist Kuomintang government in Wuhan, rather than to the national government in Nanjing, who accepted the claims some years later.[13] Through observing the context for the origination of the Chinese claims to the South China Sea it should therefore be noted that these are the product of relatively contemporary nationalist fervour, with subsidiary disputes surrounding the natural and trade resources throughout the region merely providing a trigger for the underlying dispute. Moreover, with the increasing PRC militarisation of the region the associated threat to freedom of navigation has only escalated, and by extension the American interest within the region, which threatens to fundamentally bridge the divide between disputes concerning the PRC and ASEAN, and those involving the US. Conflict, moreover, in its broadest sense has already occurred, for example with the 2012 standoff between the PRC and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, or the rejection of the UNCLOS tribunal by the PRC.[14] Hence, the nationalist origins of the territorial disputes within the South China Sea effectively preclude conflict prevention through their corruption of rational discourse with a profound sense of entitlement to the territory concerned.


To conclude, it must first be noted that the disputes occurring within the South China Sea are not fundamentally disputes concerned with the natural or trade resources within the region, although these may at times serve to exacerbate tensions. The disputes themselves are the product of Chinese, and to a lesser extent south-east Asian nationalism, during the twentieth century, and therein lies the conclusion that conflict within the South China Sea cannot be prevented. If such disputes had emerged as the mere product of a scramble for natural resources and control of the emerging trade route through the Strait of Malacca, rational conflict prevention on the principles of, “joint development,” would be perfectly achievable and mutually desirable. Yet the lasting impact of the nine-dash line, conceived within the political turmoil of the Chinese Civil War, inherently undermines the pursuit of harmony in place of an existing and protracted conflict on the diplomatic, and occasionally the military fronts through its corruption of mutually disadvantageous disputes over trade and natural resources with the language of historical entitlement. Through undermining UNCLOS with manufactured appeals to historical sovereignty, the nine-dash line has uniquely prevented the rule of law from operating to peacefully resolve the disputes. Hence, conflict in the South China Sea cannot be prevented, and to a significant extent has already begun.


[1] To, L.L. (1995), “ASEAN and the South China Sea Conflicts,” The Pacific Review, 8 (3), pp.531-543.


[2] Pitcher, T.J., Watson, R., Haggan, N., Guenette, S., Kennish, R., Sumaila, U.R., Cook, D., Wilson, K., and Leung, A. (2000), “Marine Reserves and the Restoration of Fisheries and Marine Ecosystems in the South China Sea,” Bulletin of Marine Science, 66 (3), pp.543-566.


[3] Rosenberg, D. (2010), “Governing the South China Sea: from freedom of the seas to ocean enclosure movements,” Harvard Asian Quarterly, 12 (3), pp.4-12.


[4] International Energy Association (2015), Total Primary Energy Supply by Source: China, People’s Republic of, accessed 05/09/18, available at

http://www.iea.org/statistics/?country=CHINA&year=2015&category=Key%20indicators&indicator=TPESbySource&mode=chart&categoryBrowse=false&dataTable=BALANCES&showDataTable=false.


[5] Huang, J., and Billo, A. (2015), Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Navigating Rough Waters, 1st. ed., New York, Palgrave Macmillan, part 2-2.


[6] To 1995, pp.531-543.


[7] Rosenberg 2010, pp.4-12.


[8] Rosenberg 2010, pp.4-12.


[9] Department of Defense (2018), Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, pp.1


[10] Hayton, B. (2014), The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, 1st. ed., New Haven, Yale University Press, pp.29-61.


[11] To 1995, pp.531-543.


[12] Gao, Z., and Jia, B.B. (2013), “The Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea: History, Status, and Implications,” The American Journal of International Law, 107 (1), pp.98-103.


[13] Hayton 2014, pp.29-61.


[14] Beckman, R. (2013), “The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea,” The American Journal of International Law, 107 (1), pp.142-163.


Bibliography:


Hayton, B. (2014), The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, 1st. ed., New Haven, Yale University Press.


Gao, Z., and Jia, B.B. (2013), “The Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea: History, Status, and Implications,” The American Journal of International Law, 107 (1), pp.98-103.


Beckman, R. (2013), “The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea,” The American Journal of International Law, 107 (1), pp.142-163.


Pitcher, T.J., Watson, R., Haggan, N., Guenette, S., Kennish, R., Sumaila, U.R., Cook, D., Wilson, K., and Leung, A. (2000), “Marine Reserves and the Restoration of Fisheries and Marine Ecosystems in the South China Sea,” Bulletin of Marine Science, 66 (3), pp.543-566.


Huang, J., and Billo, A. (2015), Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Navigating Rough Waters, 1st. ed., New York, Palgrave Macmillan.


Tonnesson, S. (2000), “China and the South China Sea: A Peace Proposal,” Security Dialogue, 31 (3), pp.307-326.


To, L.L. (1995), “ASEAN and the South China Sea Conflicts,” The Pacific Review, 8 (3), pp.531-543.


Simon, S.W. (2012), “Conflict and Diplomacy in the South China Sea: The View from Washington,” Asian Survey, 52 (6), pp.995-1018.


International Energy Association (2015), Total Primary Energy Supply by Source: China, People’s Republic of, accessed 05/09/18, available at http://www.iea.org/statistics/?country=CHINA&year=2015&category=Key%20indicators&indicator=TPESbySource&mode=chart&categoryBrowse=false&dataTable=BALANCES&showDataTable=false.


Cossa, R.A. (1998), Security Implications of Conflict in the South China Sea: Exploring Potential Triggers of Conflict, 1st.ed., Honolulu, Pacific Forum CSIS.


Rosenberg, D. (2010), “Governing the South China Sea: from freedom of the seas to ocean enclosure movements,” Harvard Asian Quarterly, 12 (3), pp.4-12.

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