What Underlies the Long-Running Dispute in the South China Sea?

China claims all South China Sea waters within its self-imposed ‘nine-dash line’, demarcated in a 1947 map, including the Paracel archipelago and the Spratly Islands (Image Source: US Navy)

The South China Sea is a site of intense geostrategic importance located at the heart of the Asia-Pacific. It is the site of decades-old contestation between rival regional powers over territory, lucrative energy resources and economically-vital sea lanes. Given the sea’s location at the centre of the world’s most densely-populated and fastest-growing region, and considering the above-mentioned convergence of interests, the disputes represent a pressing and complex issue which is highly resistant to resolution.

The disputes first emerged in the aftermath of World War Two, when the six claimant states bordering the sea – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – scrambled to occupy islands following the withdrawal of colonial powers. In their early stages, the disputes centred primarily over the question of territorial sovereignty. China claimed almost the entire body of water according to its ‘nine-dash line’ map, originally released publicly in 1947. The map was based on historical claims of naval expeditions in the area dating back as far as the Han Dynasty. China views its claim to sovereignty as a major national interest comparable with its desire to incorporate Taiwan into the Chinese state.

Taiwan and Vietnam also stake a claim to large portions of the sea encompassing two island groups: the Paracels and the Spratly islands. Similarly, these claims are based on historical records stretching back centuries. Another three Southeast Asian nations – Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – claim more limited portions of the sea and look to assert their right to a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching from their coastlines. These claims are made in line with the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS, while serving as an important modern-day legal referent and a possible future tool of resolution, has been a primary driver of the disputes in recent decades. This was most evident in 2009, when a UNCLOS deadline for new submissions on the delimitation of continental shelves led to a series of claims from nations bordering the sea, adding to an already-complex picture of overlapping claims and leading to a further raising of regional tensions.

While a full-scale military conflict has so-far been avoided, the South China Sea has witnessed a series of past incidents involving the militaries of the six claimant states. Most of these have taken the form of small-scale encounters or non-violent stand-offs involving coastguard ships and fishing vessels from China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In May 2014, a more high-profile incident occurred when China stationed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its EEZ, resulting in a stand-off involving more than 30 vessels. The incident damaged bilateral relations and sparked street protests in Hanoi.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has assertively pressed its claims in the disputed region through land reclamation and conducting maritime patrols (Image Source: Russian Govt.)

The two countries had previously clashed in the sea in a notorious incident at Johnson South Reef in 1988, in which two Vietnamese ships were sunk and 64 sailors perished. In more recent years, the US has risked China’s ire by carrying-out ‘Freedom of Navigation’ operations in the contested area, sailing military vessels close to islands occupied by China. This policy was a major aspect of former President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific, which many considered a thinly-veiled attempt to counter China’s rising power and support Southeast Asian states in ensuring China met opposition to its activities in the South China Sea. President Trump has taken a softer stance since his shock election win in 2016.

While competing territorial claims over islets, rocks and other land-features have defined the disputes for decades, undersea energy resources have become an increasingly important driver of the disputes in more recent times. The South China Sea is thought to contain up to 213 billion barrels of sub-sea oil in addition to vast quantities of natural gas in rocks deep beneath the waves, leading states to intensify their claims to the region. This is particularly important given the rising populations of the Asia-Pacific in combination with dwindling domestic energy reserves and a need to decrease over-reliance on the volatile Middle East for oil. China’s population is set to reach 1.4 billion by 2020, whilst the population of Southeast Asia is nudging 650 million. Shipping is another important factor, with the South China Sea being a vital transit route for the import of oil and gas, and the export of consumer goods. Up to 90% of energy imports to East Asia pass through the narrow Malacca Strait chokepoint and through the South China Sea, after being shipped first through the Indian Ocean. This provides another major imperative for states to seek a degree of control over the waters, to ensure the free-flow of shipping which is necessary to sustain high rates of economic growth. Analysts in the US have raised concerns that China could block this vital maritime trading route, while China holds the opposite fear that the US and its regional allies could close the Malacca Strait in a future worst-case scenario. Such an event – instigated by any party – would negatively impact all regional nations and dent the global economy.

All attempts to resolve the dispute so-far have failed. In 2002, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed-up to a joint Declaration of Conduct on the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), agreeing to pursue peaceful co-operation and exercise self-restraint. However, the DOC has long been criticized as being ineffective due to its non-binding nature, while talks between the two sides on a binding code-of-conduct have made little progress over the years. This has been made more difficult due to division within ASEAN over the dispute in recent times. The claimant states – in particular Vietnam and the Philippines – have maintained a tougher stance, while several of the non-claimant states – including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand – have been reluctant to criticize China’s activities too forcefully for fear of losing-out on much-needed Chinese investment. During the current impasse, China has expanded its de-facto control over the South China Sea, asserting its claims through land reclamation, building military installations on islets and conducting regular naval patrols.

The United States conducted regular Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea under President Obama, sailing warships close to disputed islands (Image Source: US Navy)

At present, the disputes have drifted out of international headlines as more immediate concerns have dominated global politics; namely the escalating US-China ‘trade war’, and the North Korea situation. The plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and rising Islamist conflict in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao have also held regional attention, forcing the South China Sea issue into the background. The US has largely retreated from Southeast Asia under nationalist President Trump, looking to lessen rather than increase America’s commitments in far-flung parts of the world. Since the final days of the Obama administration, US rhetoric on China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea has softened.

The Philippines’ President Duterte – elected several months before Trump’s unlikely rise in the US – has also adopted a softer stance. ASEAN remains divided on the issue and unable to reach consensus. This has left China to press on with its land reclamation programme and solidify its territorial gains in the South China Sea, with Beijing having previously rejected a 2016 tribunal arbitration ruling which questioned the legitimacy of its claim to sovereignty. Whether China and ASEAN will be able to adapt to the new status-quo and agree upon a binding code-of-conduct in the coming years remains to be seen. Another unknown concerns a potential change of government in the US once Trump’s first term ends in 2021. The election of an Obama-style leader may see the US strive to re-engage on the issue.

For now, at least, China has solidified its position as the dominant player in the South China Sea. Yet despite apocalyptic predictions from some analysts in the West, the disputes look unlikely to result in conflict. China, the US and ASEAN states all have too much to lose. Irrespective of whether the complex territorial claims can be resolved in the coming decades, economic realities and shared interests mean a co-operative environment regarding the sea’s resources and shipping routes may yet develop. This will be the key test as to whether peace can be sustained in the world’s most hotly-contested waters.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

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How Marawi Pushed ASEAN Nations to Join Forces to Tackle Terrorism

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months last year, sparking Southeast Asia’s leaders into action (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Despite parts of Southeast Asia experiencing the scourge of Islamist terrorism for decades, the ten member-states of ASEAN have in the past struggled to co-operate to tackle the jihadist threat. After a spate of attacks in the 2000s carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf bandits in the southern Philippines, the regional bloc made determined efforts to forge a region-wide response.

These well-intentioned moves to implement a multilateral counter-terrorism framework ended up amounting to little more than a set of non-binding protocols and agreements outlining desired outcomes and suggesting best practices for member-states to follow, rather than ushering in a new era of enhanced security co-operation between countries in the region.

Last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-aligned militants however, proved to be a game-changer. The militants’ brazen attempt to take over a mid-sized city of more than 200,000 people and forge a Southeast Asian ISIS province centred on the Philippines’ war-ravaged southern island of Mindanao reignited the lingering threat, finally sparking the region’s authorities into action.

Southeast Asia has long been afflicted by the presence of local, regional and transnational terrorist groups. Mindanao has been the site of an intractable armed Islamist insurgency since the early-1970s, which started off as a separatist movement but later spawned radical groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Meanwhile Indonesia suffered a string of attacks at the hands of homegrown militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 1990s and 2000s, supported by Al-Qaeda cells operational within the country. The presence of these groups also caused significant alarm in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, whilst sparking fears in the wider region.

Terror groups were able to establish a home in the Southeast Asia’s maritime states, taking advantage of porous sea borders and areas of weak state presence to set up training camps and bases from which to plan and launch attacks. This was especially true for remote parts of the Indonesian archipelago and in the lawless chain of Philippine islands which divides the Sulu and Celebes seas. In 2002 more than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks by JI targeting nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, before Abu Sayyaf bombed a packed passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 civilians.

These high-profile attacks in the post-9/11 era prompted ASEAN to introduce a raft of measures intended to combat terrorism. The most important of these was the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), designed to ‘‘provide for the framework for regional co-operation to counter, prevent and supress terrorism in all its forms’’ and ‘‘deepen co-operation among law enforcement agencies’’. However, the convention was not ratified by all ten member-states until 2013, and remained merely a set of guidelines with no enforcement or compliance mechanism. Several other region-wide agreements including the 2009 ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism (CPACT) have only had a marginal influence.

The impact of these counter-terrorism measures has been limited for several reasons. ASEAN’s strict adherence to consensus-based decision-making and the principle of non-interference has faced criticism, whilst the bloc’s use of vague language and its lack of enforcement capabilities have prevented the introduction of concrete region-wide measures to tackle terrorism. The grouping has often been described as a forum for discussion rather than a powerful body willing to push its members into taking firm action.

The varied threat level across ASEAN and the differing military and financial capabilities of its ten member-states has also hindered co-operation. For example, the threat from Islamist terrorism may be high in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, whilst their armed forces are also relatively well-resourced. In comparison, countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam face a far lower threat, and may not be prepared or equipped to contribute resources to the fight. The past reluctance of ASEAN nations to share intelligence or permit foreign troops to operate across national boundaries has also blocked greater co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism.

The heightened regional terrorism threat featured high-up on the agenda at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit held in Manila (Image Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Historically, ASEAN’s ten member-states have displayed a preference for strengthening domestic legislation and signing bilateral level agreements to tackle terrorism, seeing the threats as national rather than regional or global in nature, and therefore not requiring a multilateral response.

That was until jihadists stormed the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year. The threat which had lain dormant beneath the surface since the decline of JI in the late 2000s had suddenly re-emerged in a form that was clearly regional in nature as ISIS announced their intention to carve out a Southeast Asian caliphate. Leaders quickly realised the need for closer co-operation to prevent the violence spreading, amid fears of further ISIS-inspired attacks and terrorist infiltration across borders.

Even before the Marawi siege ended in October, regional leaders gathered on several occasions to discuss responses to the evolving threat. Indonesian President Joko Widodo described Marawi as a ‘‘wake-up call’’ regarding the threat posed to Southeast Asia, whilst Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reaffirmed his country’s commitment to tackle Islamist terror groups in the region. In September, security officials from all ten ASEAN states took part in a specially-convened meeting on the ‘Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ in the region, whilst terrorism also topped the agenda at November’s 31st ASEAN Summit hosted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

The discussions sparked by the takeover of Marawi first resulted in strengthened bilateral and trilateral measures agreed between the states most affected. In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of co-ordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. Indonesia and the Philippines have also agreed to establish a hotline to alert one another about security threats along their shared maritime frontier.

More recently two multilateral regional counter-terror initiatives have been established, indicating that ASEAN nations now appear more willing to co-operate on a collective basis than in the past.

In mid-November, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established to crack down on the funding of terrorist groups linked to ISIS. The new regional grouping will include law enforcement agencies from across Southeast Asia, and will be led by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and Australia’s Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

Then in a landmark agreement on 25 January six ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – signed-up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. The agreement is expected to facilitate the most extensive counter-terrorism co-operation within ASEAN to-date. It will see senior defence officials from the participating nations meet twice a month, and will allow for the development of a new database of suspected militants which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies across the region.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have been conducting trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to prevent the movement of terror suspects across borders. In this photo, Philippine troops are seen participating in a training drill alongside US forces (Image Source: US Navy)

At its launch, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said the initiative would be crucial in enabling a collective response to emerging security threats which are ‘‘complex and trans-boundary in nature’’. It is hoped that the four remaining ASEAN states will later join the group, as well as external actors with a stake in the region’s stability such as Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The crisis in Marawi certainly got the region’s leaders thinking about how to better pool resources to tackle the growing threat from Islamist terrorism; but it has not yet resulted in an all-encompassing strategy involving all ten of ASEAN’s member-nations. Such an aim will always be difficult to achieve, due to the huge variation in threat along with the differing capabilities and priorities of ASEAN states.

However, ad-hoc collaborative responses have emerged involving the countries most concerned, on a scale not witnessed previously in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have looked to work with other interested parties to find workable and pragmatic multilateral solutions to the most pressing and immediate problems facing the region’s vulnerable maritime states.

With a series of overlapping bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms now in place, ASEAN integration in the sphere of counter-terrorism has been significantly upgraded. In the post-Marawi era of elevated risk, a set of guidelines which meant little in practice is rapidly being superseded by a more co-ordinated regional strategy, aimed at tackling the most critical threat facing Southeast Asia today.

A version of this article is also published on Asian Correspondent.