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Sino-US Rivalry in South China Sea: A New Normal?; By Prof. B .R. Deepak

C3S Paper No. 0124/ 2015

South China Sea (SCS) which encompasses an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, consisting of Dongsha, Xisha (known as Paracel), Zhongsha (also Huangyan in Chinese) and Nansha (Spratly) islands, has long been a bone of contention between China and Southeast Asian countries. Presently of these Zhongsha and Xisha are under the actual jurisdiction of China; Dongsha under the jurisdiction of Taiwan, and Nansha being fiercely contested by various countries in the region. The western, northeastern and southwestern areas of Nansha are under the actual jurisdiction of Vietnam, Philippine and Malaysia respectively. Of these islets 8 are controlled by China, 1 by Taiwan, 29 by Vietnam, 8 by Philippine, 5 by Malaysia and 2 by Brunei.

Various claimants have been passing legislations claiming certain islets. Last year in February, Philippines Senate and House of Representatives passed Baseline Bill and declared its ownership over Scarborough (Huangyan) island and some others in Spratly. A few months later Vietnam too passed its Maritime Law declaring indisputable sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands. China claims the entire South China Sea and has expressed outrage over these declarations, and further reinforced its claims by increasing the level of governance on the disputed islands; the establishment of Sansha city, a garrison in Zhongsha, inviting bids to explore resources in some of the disputed islands, and now the dredging and reclamation of some of the islets and reefs are manifestations of China’s show of strength and above all the assertion of its sovereignty in the region.

SCS reclamation row

Recent reclamation of islands and building soft infrastructure such as lighthouses on reclaimed islets has escalated not only into a war of words between the US  and China but also flared tensions in the region as the US PACOM has initiated surveillance of Chinese reclamation activities and installation of mobile artillery vehicles in the reclaimed reefs and shoals. The US believes that China is fortifying these areas and may threaten the regional stability. Conversely China argues that the facilities are primarily for public services. The war of words was carried out all the way to Shang-Ri La Dialogue held in Singapore between 29 and 31 May 2015. The US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterated the US position that it was within its right to protect the freedom of navigation and overflight, and called for an “immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants.” Though Carter made reference to reclamation by others too, however, the criticism was primarily directed towards China, which he said, has reclaimed over 800 hectares, more than all other claimants combined and has done so in only the last 18 months. Though he did not directly accuse China of moving artillery vehicles to the reclaimed areas, but was categorical when he said that they “oppose any further militarization of disputed features.”

Rejecting Carter’s contentions, China’s Deputy Chief of General Staff, Admiral Sun Jianguo retorted that reclamation work in anyway does not affect the freedom of navigation and overflight, it is the US who in the garb of freedom of navigation wants to interfere in the dispute. Explaining the kind of reclamation activities China was undertaking, he said it has built an ocean survey station for the United Nations on Yongshu reef, and have initiated the construction of two multi-functional lighthouses on the Huayang  and Chigua reefs with an objective to provide better international public services in the realms of maritime search and rescue operations, disaster prevention and relief, marine research, meteorological studies, environmental protection, navigation safety and fishery production etc. therefore, China’s reclamation is “justified, legitimate and reasonable.” Back in Beijing, Hua Chunying, the spokeswomen of Ministry of Foreign affairs reacted fiercely to Carter’s criticism of China when she said no one has the right to dictate China’s moves.

China’s perceptions

First and foremost, China believes that apart from controlling most of the choke points in Indo-Pacific, the US is also attempting to control other swathes of marine territory and vital lanes, so that the US has greater maneuverability on the one hand and contain China on the other. Conversely, Reclamation by China will deny that strategic space to the US. Moreover, in long run the Malacca Straight dilemma would be overcome by ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy, especially the Sino-Pak Economic Corridor; therefore, no wonder the US is becoming more aggressive in the SCS. Two, China considers the US as an outsider in the region as it is neither located in the region nor does it have any sovereignty disputes with China or any other country in the region, therefore, besides maintaining it hegemony and containing China, the US has no locus standi in the SCS. Three, China perceives the US as an instigator of the dispute encouraging countries like Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and of late inciting South Korea and India to join the chorus in its policy of containing China. It feels that the US meddling will internationalize, complicate the situation and more importantly dent China image internationally. Four, China blames the US for having double standards, for the latter “chooses selective silence” toward those who illegally occupy territories claimed by China as was stated by Hua Chunying recently. It believes that the US has never objected to the reclamation activities of other claimants such as Vietnam which has ‘occupied’ maximum area in Spratly; asking all claimants to halt reclamation is just a lip service. Five,  the US which is not the signatory of the UNCLOS, has on the contrary argued that the UNCLOS grants foreign ships and planes free access beyond a 12 nautical mile territorial limit. The PA-8 surveillance aircraft of the US has followed these norms, however, have been warned by China to leave the area as China claims that military flights cannot cross its 200 mile exclusive economic zone without its permission. The US fears that China’s intentions are to make a fait accompli in the region by dredging and reclamation that will adversely impact on the freedom of navigation in the region. Had the US been a signatory to the UNCLOS, it might have taken China to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the navigation issue. Six, China is aware that the US has maintained neutrality as far as the issue of sovereignty is concerned, therefore, has preferred to engage the claimants bilaterally, and has expressed its commitment towards the Code of Conduct negotiated by the ASEAN in 2002. However, if the US has not taken sides, it has also objected to China’s sovereignty over these reclaimed reefs. This is evident when Carter told his audience at Shang-Ri La that “Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty.” Seven, China is optimistic and confident about its success, and knows that most of the world including the US shares this viewpoint including some of its legal basis in the dispute, as was demonstrated by Barack Obama on June 1st before leaving to Jamaica. Obama said that “the truth is, is that China is going to be successful, it’s big, it’s powerful, its people are talented and they work hard and, and it may be that some of their claims are legitimate.” But he also warned China to stop “throwing elbows” in SCS. Finally, China is aware that the US would not like to confront China seriously in the region and will not cross the 12 nautical miles territorial limit for surveillance, if it does, there may be miscalculation and the stability in the region will be threatened.

A zero sum game?

Freedom of navigation may not be a serious an issue comparing the territorial claims, especially when more than 700 islets, reefs and shoals estimated to have oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are at stake. All the 9 ASEAN claimants are pitched against China and dependant on the US for diplomatic and military support. However, as the economic interests of these countries are highly intertwined with those of China, they may not like to confront China openly and alone. China has declared South China Sea as one of its core interests along with Tibet and Xinjiang where negotiations are out of question. The hard-line emanating from Zhongnanhai is that China will continue its reclamation activities and resist the US by various psychological, media, political and legal etc. warfare. As for the US, with its ‘pivot to Asia’ the US Navy would be testing China’s claims in the South China Sea, and may cross the 12 nautical mile limit as well, which may force China to impose a new ADIZ over SCS on the lines of Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, and the rivalry may lead to mishaps and miscalculations.

Since China is also gradually transiting from a continental power to maritime power, the confrontation in the Indo-Pacific between the established global power and a rising one may be a new normal in coming times. China is aware of the asymmetry in force structure with the US irrespective of its second strike capability.  Nevertheless, as China grows economically, the gaps are likely to be plugged in and new anti access/area denial weapons included its armor.  While China is expected to engage the US as well as ASEAN at the highest level and sell its common development and win-win cooperation, nonetheless, it will also heighten its military preparedness for any eventuality and protracted contest with the US. If the push comes to shove, the US may abandon its present position on freedom of navigation, unimpeded passage for commercial shipping, which anyway is not tenable, in favor of greater economic concessions from China, for asking or threatening China to halt its reclamation activities will not work at all.

(Prof. B R Deepak is Professor of China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own. He could be reached at

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