The article looks at how a unanimous approach has been evolving among the major powers in  the South China issue and the military operations by the US and its strategic partners can exacerbate tensions beyond the region.

At the recent High-level General Debate of 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly (virtual), President Nguyen Phu Trong, in his video message conveyed that as the 2020 ASEAN Chair, Vietnam is working with countries “within and outside the region” to uphold “peace, stability, maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea (South China Sea)” in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[1] He called on the “concerned parties to exercise restraint, avoid unilateral acts that would complicate the situation, and settle disputes and differences through peaceful means with due respect for diplomatic and legal processes”.

The South China Sea issue was also highlighted by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte who articulated a “forthright statement of principle”[2] and reiterated the award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in the Philippines v China case over South China Sea.  Duterte declared that the “award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon,” which was rejected by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in his speech.

Earlier, Secretary General António Guterres cautioned that the ongoing US-China tensions are turning into a “geostrategic and military divide” which must be avoided. Although Guterres’ remarks did hint at the South China Sea issue, he was seemingly referring to the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea.

There is near unanimity among major powers other than Russia—which has chosen not to take sides between China and the other claimants—that Chinese declarations of the “historic waters” in the South China Sea is not in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS and that its aggressive and coercive behaviour undermines regional  security.

The US’ position on the South China Sea is now well known. A clear policy statement that the “world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” has been announced, and Washington has rejected China’s claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea. Three European powers i.e., France, Germany and the UK too have contended the Chinese declarations of the “historic waters” in South China Sea are not in accordance with international law, and have filed a Note Verbale in the United Nations over the issue.[3]

Perhaps the biggest concern for many of the major powers is about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The frequency of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea by the US Navy has been increasing every successive year i.e., four in 2017; five in 2018; eight in 2019; and seven in the first eight months of 2020.[4] These have caused high tensions between the two contending powers. Besides both sides have undertaken high intensity naval maneuvers, strategic bomber missions including multiple carrier operations by both sides in waters around the South China Sea. Furthermore, there are clear signals of a buildup involving military infrastructure and force development at Guam and Hawaii and restoration activity is taking place at other islands in the Pacific Ocean, which were once used by the US during the Second World War. At least two European navies i.e., France and the UK, and Australia have conducted FONOP independently as also multi-nation naval maneuvers in and around the South China Sea. These countries too have also received sharp reactions from China.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) involving Australia, India, Japan and the United States is another major concern for China. From the Chinese perspective, the QSD is a NATO-like structure and is ostensibly for containing China. In late September 2020, the Senior Officials from the QSD discussed ways to promote peace, security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region including issues concerning post-pandemic supply chains and 5G.[5] The foreign ministers are scheduled to hold talks in October in Tokyo to further boost their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

The Members of the QSD have endorsed the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy albeit with a number of transmutations of the term Indo-Pacific, based on national, regional and organisation priorities as also on account of cartographic realities. Likewise, France, Germany and the UK have their own distinct priorities in the Indo-Pacific and may even have “reluctantly, aligned with the US on key strategic issues, including in the South China Sea”. It is quite evident that  they have China as a common factor, a rising power and seen as attempting to change the status quo through military posturing and intimidating smaller powers such as the countries in the ASEAN who have conflicting claims to the South China Sea and are incapable of fending off the Chinese military might.

The international community is worried about the ongoing tensions between the US and China and some believe that the strategic rivalry is fanning the South China Sea disputes. Neither side is willing to pull back; President Trump has upped the ante against China. It is unlikely that the situation will improve till the US Presidential elections in November 2020. A conciliatory policy on the South China Sea is also unlikely in future even if Joe Biden wins Presidential elections.  In such a scenario, the US, its alliance members and strategic partners will continue to conduct military operations in the South China Sea and these will surely escalate and exacerbate tensions not only in the region but also beyond, as the ongoing standoff between China and India.

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Feature Image Source: Al Jazeera English

[1]“Remarks by Party General Secretary, State President Nguyen Phu Trong at High-level General Debate of 75th session of UNGA.” Accessed October 7, 2020.  

[2]“In UN Speech, Duterte Stiffens Philippines’ Stance on the South China Sea.” Accessed October 7, 2020.

[3]“UK Joins Choir Defying China’s South China Sea claims.” Accessed October 7, 2020.

[4]“The South China Sea Dispute in 2020-2021.” Accessed October 7, 2020.

[5]“India, US, Japan, Australia Hold Meet on Indo-Pacific under Quad Framework.” Accessed October 7, 2020.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

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