By Euan Graham
The South China Sea has been a flashpoint of Asia-Pacific regional discussion in recent years, strategically polarising the US and China on the great power stage. The issue has also exposed divisions between China and maritime Southeast Asian countries, especially Beijing’s rival claimants to territory in the sea. Even when US–China rhetorical fireworks have been less spectacular, as was the case at last year’s IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, the strategic paramountcy of the South China Sea has remained clear.
The release of the Arbitral Tribunal Award in The Hague last July was a signature event, handing the Philippines a major legal victory and negating Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea. However, as explored in this year’s IISS Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment, the Hague Award has since been overtaken by political change in Manila and Washington.
Indeed, uncertainty around the Trump administration’s commitment to preserving the rules-based order in the South China Sea has potentially afforded China the space to further consolidate its position. And although the US will no doubt continue to ‘fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits’, as emphasised previously by the Obama administration and again this year by Secretary of Defense Mattis, there is likely to be a concentration of US strategic focus northward, to the Korean Peninsula. That shift of emphasis may signal a more accommodating attitude towards China elsewhere in the region. Meanwhile, it is likely that Beijing will continue to affirm the sanctity of China’s self-defined maritime sovereignty claims within the sea’s first island chain.
New code of conduct is some way off
On 18 May 2017, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China announced they had agreed a ‘framework’ for a South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC). Tellingly, the details remain out of the public domain, raising suspicions about its contents, which could be little improvement on the 2002 Declaration on a Code of Conduct. The framework remains a significant distance from a finalised, binding CoC, but it is due to be presented to ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers in August, in theory as a basis for negotiations. China has refused to give further commitments and there is no reason to expect that the Philippines, as ASEAN chair in 2017, will press for progress over process.
Under President Rodrigo Duterte the Philippines has had a mixed approach to the Arbitral Tribunal Award, in deference to China’s sensitivities. Duterte’s diplomatic deference to Beijing continues to net economic and symbolic dividends, as seen in May when the Chinese navy made its first port call to the Philippines in a decade, including a visit to Duterte’s home town of Davao. However, it has not all been plain sailing for Duterte in the South China Sea. He has come under increasing criticism at home for his accommodative stance towards Beijing. Nevertheless, in March, China’s navy began sailing off Benham Rise, a submerged seamount within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ), far to the east of the South China Sea. In response, Duterte ordered the Philippines’ military to sail there and for structures to be built to denote Manila’s authority.
Strong criticism - but single US operation will not allay regional anxieties
The US chose the South China Sea’s Mischief Reef for its navy's first freedom-of-navigation operation under the Trump administration. It took place in late May, seven months since the last operation, and alleviated concerns that the Washington's attitude on the South China Sea is weakening. Secretary Mattis’ address at the 2017 Shangri Dialogue made four key criticisms of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, using notably strong language. He attacked:
• The ‘nature of [China’s] militarisation’;
• Beijing’s ‘blatant disregard for international law’;
• its ‘contempt for other nations’ interests’; and
• ‘its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues’.
The operational assertion by the USS Dewey within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef marks a bolder demonstration than the passage transits previously undertaken by the Obama administration elsewhere in the Spratly Islands. However, neither a single FONOP operation nor Secretary Mattis’ comments at this year’s dialogue are likely to dispel regional anxieties about the Trump administration’s transactional approach toward China.
This post is part of the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Voices blog. It will provide a lively mix of news and views from the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, taking place in Singapore from 2–4 June.