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South China Sea Issues and Secretary Tillerson’s Visit to China; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Article no: 0028/2017

Q1. Media reports that China is starting another round of construction in Paracel Islands, based on the satellite taken by March 6. Do you think this will affect Secretary Rex Tillerson’s trip to Asia this week?

ANSWER: The main purpose of Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Japan, South Korea and China is to get agreement on how to deal with North Korea’s provocative ballistic missile tests and its threat to conduct another nuclear explosion. President Trump has made this a top priority. Tillerson will also lay the groundwork for a summit meeting in April between presidents Trump and Xi Jinping at Mar a Largo. It is likely that Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea will come up in Tillerson’s discussions but they will not dominate.

Q2. In addition, last week, China’s foreign minister said that a draft Code of Conduct (COC) has been completed. What do you think is behind China’s statement, given that they had been trying to delay such an agreement in South China Sea for years. Why has Beijing chosen this time to push for the COC?

ANSWER: China announced at last year’s ASEAN Ministerial Meetings that a new page had been turned on the South China Sea and that a framework agreement on the Code of Conduct could be reached in the first half of this year. Why? Mainly because of the China tilt by the Duterte Administration in Manila and Duterte’s deliberate downplaying of the Award by the Arbitral Tribunal. China has every incentive to make political and economic inroads on a compliant Philippine government. China is also responding to initial bellicose remarks by Rex Tillerson during his confirmation hearing. China is now pushing the line that the trend in the South China Sea is positive and that China and ASEAN members are working positively. In other words, the U.S. should stay out and not disrupt this peaceful trend. The bottom line is that China’s ultimate goal of hegemony over the South China Sea has not been shelved. China has strung out discussions on the COC to suit its interests. China is now stepping up discussions to divide ASEAN from the Trump Administration. China has always insisted that the Declaration on Conduct of Parties (DOC) be implemented in full first. Not one cooperative activity has commenced. So China has plenty of room to delay reaching a legally binding COC. Meanwhile, since Arbitral Tribunal Award, China has built reinforced hangars next to its airfields on three artificial islands, added Close-in Weapons Systems and surface to air missiles to protect the airfields, and built housing for advanced surface to air missiles on all seven of its artificial islands. China has continued to conduct naval exercises in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping will try to convince Donald Trump they can make deals on global issues and that the South China Sea should not be of major concern to the United States.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients.]

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