Pascal Abb is a research fellow at the GIGA Institute for Asian Studies. In this interview, he explains why conflicts keep occurring in this region and what role the South China Sea plays in terms of politics.
Time and again disputes have arisen between China and other states bordering the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Why?
The territorial conflicts in the region are extremely complex, as a total of six parties have entirely or partially claimed and occupied islands, shoals, and reefs there. In addition, questions of legality are still in dispute regarding what economic rights, if any, apply to the cases of these “islands.” This has led to frequent clashes, where, for instance, fishermen are confronted and chased or detained by the coast guards of other states in order to reinforce claims of sovereignty. These claims are predominantly grounded in historical entitlements that are quite difficult to comprehend in today’s world. International arbitration mechanisms don’t have a lot of bite and are mostly fundamentally rejected by China.
How are the states along the South China Sea dealing with this situation?
A huge power shift has taken place in the region: China’s rapid economic rise has given it a marked advantage over other states. In recent years, Beijing has increasingly been utilising its position to undertake irreversible actions. The Chinese coast guard has become dominant in the region, and with it, land reclamation and construction activities have been carried out as of late on China’s reefs, which has fortified its presence. This has caused smaller states to worry that China is on its way to total regional hegemony. Vietnam and the Philippines are exploring ramping up their partnership, and actors outside the region are strengthening their presence as well – mainly the United States, which is already directly engaged militarily, but also Japan, which has recently intensified its defence cooperation with the Philippines. This has raised fears in Beijing that it will become the target of a containment coalition.
Why is the region so significant?
The shipping traffic is considerable – most trade routes that connect Europe and Africa with Japan and China go through the South China Sea. In addition, there are profitable fishery areas and it is also speculated that there are oil and gas deposits. But non-material factors are probably more important at the moment: over the last several years, the South China Sea has become a focal point for nationalistic attitudes in several countries. In China, the ability to meet its own aspirations in the region has become something of a touchstone for that country’s rise, which the CCP in turn uses to justify its claims to power. In Vietnam and the Philippines, however, the islands are a symbol of resistance against a too-powerful China. That’s why there are frequent demonstrations in all of these countries whenever conflicts erupt in the South China Sea, and the governments of those countries find themselves under pressure from their own citizens when their approach is viewed as too soft.
As part of a research project, you explored the opinions of Chinese policy experts on these questions. What conclusions did you come to?
Chinese experts evaluate the behaviour of outside actors very differently, especially in the cases of the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines are seen as leaning heavily on the United States and following American orders to stoke local conflicts in order to limit the rise of China. Vietnam, on the other hand, is still seen above all as a partner. The CCP maintains close ties with its communist sister party in Vietnam, which opens up a channel by which to manage conflicts, even though this channel hasn’t always been effective. Because of the similarities in the two countries’ systems, the Chinese emphasise their shared interests and hope that Hanoi will not join an anti-Chinese containment coalition under American leadership. The Vietnamese reaction to the offshore oil platform conflict in 2014 made the danger of a confrontation very clear to many Chinese experts, who then communicated that to the political leadership. Unfortunately, whether these concerns are being taken seriously is another story.
What positions are Western countries taking?
The West’s position is closer to that of the smaller states in the region, which is unsurprising from a psychological standpoint. Due to the many parallel conflicts China is involved in with its neighbours, a narrative is rapidly being solidified whereby China is presented as aggressive and revisionist. The United States, in particular, reacts very sensitively to any sign that China is poised to attain regional hegemony and perhaps even challenge the United States’ own global leadership role in the future. In Europe, of course, very different issues take precedence, and there is less interest in getting involved in these conflicts.
What do you think the future holds for the South China Sea?
China has been very active over the past year in turning the shoals and reefs into islands using fleets of dredgers, in order to erect logistical infrastructure such as landing strips and docking facilities. China has always emphasised the civilian nature of these projects, which was recently undergirded by a PR move in which passenger jets landed on one such island that was then marketed by posing flight attendants as “China’s southernmost airport.” It certainly wouldn’t be an unskilful gambit to underpin China’s de facto control over the region by expanding civilian use without aggravating fears of an intensified militarisation. The space is too limited for mass tourism to take place, but once China follows through with its provision of maritime safety and rescue services, which it has already announced plans to do, China’s presence will become anchored and normalised. At least according to statements made by the Chinese experts, optimism prevails that China’s power will reach a point where its rivals will eventually stop resisting and leave the field to China. This explains China’s strategy of slowly but surely increasing the pressure on those states while simultaneously pointing to the material benefits they would enjoy if they cooperated with Beijing. One positive aspect of this approach is that it makes military escalation improbable, at least in the short term. But I doubt very much that China’s expectations will be met, given the dramatic rise of nationalistic sentiments in the Southeast Asian states.
Thank you for speaking with us.
The article “Punish the Philippines, forgive Vietnam? The South China Sea disputes in the eyes of Chinese experts” was published in April 2016 in the edited volume Power Politics in Asia’s Contested Waters: Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea, which can be ordered here.