New alignments are looming in the South China Sea

Filipino fishermen prepare to sail despite alleged harassment by China in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines won a landmark arbitral case against China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images.
Filipino fishermen prepare to sail despite alleged harassment by China in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines won a landmark arbitral case against China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images.

Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency has invited counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to ‘share experiences and foster brotherhood’ as the six Southeast Asian countries most affected by China’s activities in the South China Sea. The gathering next month appears to have been triggered by reports of Chinese coastguard ships harassing Indonesian oil and gas exploration.

Indonesia has long acted as if it were not involved in the South China Sea disputes but is now forced to recognize that Chinese companies and state agencies covet the oil, gas, and fish resources available off its coast, and so finds itself in the same boat as its Southeast Asian neighbours. This seems to have caused a reassessment of how to respond to China.

Back in 2020, Vietnam was forced to pay around $1 billion to international energy firms after cancelling offshore energy contracts following Chinese pressure. In 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte told journalists President Xi Jinping had warned him there would be ‘war’ if the Philippines attempted to develop a gas field off its own coast. And Malaysia and Brunei have also come under similar pressure not to develop energy resources.

They have all suffered economic costs with government budgets losing tax and licence revenues while energy companies have been obliged to buy oil and gas on the open market, develop import infrastructure, and forego export income. And some will have to expand coal-fired power generation to meet the demand for electricity, with inevitable consequences for climate change.

Fisheries are also collapsing, creating food insecurity as fishing communities are cut off from sources of income, pushing them into poverty and triggering renewed migration to already overcrowded cities.

Exploiting a 1948 line on a map

At the root of all these troubles is a line which was first printed on a Chinese map in 1948 looping around the South China Sea and stretching almost 1,500 kilometres from the Chinese coast on Hainan Island to areas just 50 kilometres off Malaysian Borneo and 100 kilometres off the Natuna Islands of Indonesia.

When this line was first drawn after World War Two, it was intended to mark a new Chinese territorial claim to the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea. But since then the China coastguard and other government agencies have acted as if it is a maritime boundary and a claim on the resources of the sea.

In 1982, almost every country in the world – including China – agreed the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to prevent and resolve maritime disputes. UNCLOS gives countries the rights to the resources in the sea up to 200 nautical miles – about 400 kilometres – from their coasts within areas called exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

But despite ratifying UNCLOS in 1996, China has been accused of violating its provisions in increasingly dramatic ways. In 2016, an International Arbitral Tribunal ruled against China on 14 out of 15 points brought by the Philippines. In the past two years, China has conducted seismic surveys in the EEZs of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, raising fears it might drill for hydrocarbons there in the future.

Until now, these countries had – publicly at least – placed their hopes in the development of a code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea involving China and all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The initial idea for this code emerged more than 25 years ago, but agreement has never been reached.

In 2018 Chinese premier Li Keqiang declared China was ready to ‘conclude consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea in three years’ time’. But since that speech, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced diplomats from China and ASEAN to agree to a one-year delay. But it is highly unlikely agreement will ever be reached.

Limits on China or the US

The ASEAN coastal states want a CoC to constrain China’s behaviour but China wants one which constrains US behaviour by banning it from military exercises in the region. Vietnam also wants the code to apply in the Paracel Islands but China says it should only apply in the Spratly Islands. The Philippines wants the Scarborough Shoal reef included in the code but China disagrees. And Singapore and the other states want the code to be ‘legally binding’ whereas China does not wish to be bound.

With Cambodia chairing ASEAN in 2022, the Chinese leadership senses an opportunity as, during Cambodia’s previous chairing ten years ago, it was particularly friendly towards Chinese interests which led to a dramatic showdown with other ASEAN leaders at the organization’s 2012 summit. Cambodia remains just as friendly towards China now, and Beijing may also be able to gather support from crisis-hit Myanmar, Laos, and perhaps even Thailand.

ASEAN is likely to remain deadlocked on the CoC for some time to come. Its members have long resisted suggestions they form smaller groupings to address specific issues but the upcoming February meeting of the six South China Sea-facing countries appears to address exactly this problem. It could mark the start of a more coordinated response.

Although a split is emerging within ASEAN between those countries which are worried about China’s activities, and those which are not – which is bad news for regional stability – there is an easy answer. Governments should simply abide by the provisions of UNCLOS that they all negotiated, signed, and ratified. The Southeast Asian states are ready to do this, but China – so far – is not.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.

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