In the past several months’ tensions have escalated in the South China Sea, as the Chinese Government announced on April 18 that it would assume administrative control over the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands. This announcement comes after the Chinese navy sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel on April 3, in the disputed waters off the Paracel Islands.
Although some countries, such as Vietnam, were quick to speak out against China’s actions, most other nations have yet to respond. This inaction is mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left most countries busy dealing with domestic issues.
Thus, China’s recent actions have raised concerns that the country may be taking advantage of the fact that most nations are consumed by pandemic response efforts to establish greater dominance and undermine the sovereignty claims of ASEAN nations.
China’s Expansion Into the South China Sea
The South China Sea maritime boundaries include China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Brunei. The region has become one of the most disputed areas globally, particularly because of its significant economic value. According to recent estimates, the South China Sea is a highly lucrative fishing zone, producing approximately 10% of global fishing yields. In addition, the region is home to vast oil and natural gas reserves and valuable trade routes. 2018 estimates suggest that trade in the South China Sea region amounted to $5.3 trillion and included over 30% of the global maritime crude oil trade.
In 2009, China claimed that it had “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, stating that historical maps indicate that the area rightfully belongs to China. However, many ASEAN nations have also staked claims to parts of this maritime area, based on allocations of seas made to the nations under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has ratified.
Today, China has laid claim to over 80% of the South China Sea and has begun reclaiming land in the region by constructing ports and runways, establishing military equipment, and even building a series of floating nuclear power plants in the area. In addition, under the guise of scientific research, China has begun building research stations on the Fiery Cross and Subi reefs in the South China Sea. In May, Taiwan also disclosed that China intended to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the area, which would require all civilian aircraft to announce themselves and their location to China.
These moves have raised concerns that China’s expansion in the region is for offensive military purposes, as well as economic purposes. Many ASEAN nations are concerned that China is using its growing influence in the South China Sea to expand its oil and gas exploration efforts and hinder the exploration efforts of the ASEAN nations who claim sovereignty over parts of the waters. Beijing, however, has insisted its actions in the region are trade and defense-oriented.
The United States, in particular, has expressed concern about these moves, including by protesting China’s expansionist policies at the United Nations, as they could destabilize the region and augment China’s global influence.
Although China’s claims to the South China Sea have been deemed fraudulent by an international tribunal in The Hague, China continues to flex its might in the region. Though China has denied that it is taking advantage of the pandemic to expand into the disputed space, its recent moves could prove to be game-changing. This then raises the question— what can be done to thwart China’s expansion into the South China Sea?
Eyes On ASEAN 36 Summit to Mitigate Tensions
In the past, ASEAN nations have remained divided on how to respond to China’s expansion into the South China Sea. But when Vietnam assumed its role as chair of ASEAN for 2020, it vowed to ensure that the bloc discussed the South China Sea controversy at length, in order to develop an effective solution. This year, Vietnam was also appointed as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, setting high expectations to deliver on this promise. However, the pandemic has essentially derailed Vietnam’s agenda for the year, and the ASEAN 36 Summit has been postponed.
Nonetheless, analysts still believe that Vietnam can harness its influence as a leader in the bloc to unite nations impacted by China’s expansionist policies and develop a legally-binding Code of Conduct that undermines China’s expanding presence in the South China Sea. Achieving a consensus on the development of this Code of Conduct may be quite difficult though, as it has been in discussion for over a decade.
But Vietnam seems up to challenge and has even indicated that it may attempt to extend its chairmanship period in order to expand discussions around the South China Sea and defuse rising tensions, both at the rescheduled ASEAN 36 Summit and in the future.
Despite growing criticism against China’s most recent expansion into the South China Sea, Beijing has insisted that cooperation between the country and ASEAN has never been better. Recently, at a press conference, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi shared that trade in goods grew 6.1% between China and ASEAN, making ASEAN China’s biggest trading partner. However, this relationship reveals an economic dependency between ASEAN and China, which could be exploited to further Beijing’s regional agenda. Yi also stated that although talks around the South China Sea had stalled, they would resume soon, indicating that Beijing has a strategy lined up for any upcoming discussions.
Given the rapid spread of COVID-19, regional cooperation is now more critical than ever. Many experts are concerned that if Vietnam does not serve as a strong unifying force, ASEAN unity may continue to fracture, allowing China to continue to assert its dominance in the region.
Broader Multilateralism As A Solution
If Vietnam is unable to unify the ASEAN nations against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, it may turn to external countries for help. Accordingly, Vietnam has recently begun cooperating with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as “the Quad”), which is composed of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. The Quad was formed in 2007 with a mandate to check China’s growing power in the region.
Vietnam could also seek to establish stronger ties with the United States directly. However, many nations in the APAC region have shied away from forming strong ties with the United States, as this often results in countries becoming intertwined in the ongoing power struggle between China and the US. Moreover, the Trump Administration’s inconsistent foreign policy agenda has created mistrust between ASEAN nations and the US. Thus, ASEAN nations may be better off exploring relationships with other powerful states that have coherent and consistent foreign policies such as Japan, the United Kingdom, and France, who also have vested interests in tempering China’s growing influence.