Flashpoint: South China Sea

June 12, 2011

Zachary Fillingham

South China Sea crisis and implications for regional security



The conflict between China and Vietnam over the South China Sea is not just a petty squabble over maritime sovereignty. It is the first test of the new East Asian reality- a strategic landscape in which China has filled the security vacuum of waning US power.

In this sense, the South China Sea can be viewed through the lens of a soft proxy conflict: a US-backed Vietnam standing up to a markedly assertive Chinese territory claim. At stake is the establishment of a precedent over how these kinds of conflicts will be resolved in the future. Will China be able to convert its newfound economic and military might into the ability to bend neighbouring states to its will, or will it be hemmed in by the multilateralism that has characterized its ‘peaceful rise’ up until now?

It is no real surprise that Vietnam has chosen an assertive path on the South China Sea. Tough talk from the government and a live-fire military drill in the contested area both reflect Vietnamese sensitivity over being muscled around by its neighbour to the North. After all, Vietnamese distrust of Chinese intentions is somewhat of a historical constant and as such won’t be going away anytime soon. In this current situation, the Vietnamese government is drawing strength from a US offer to mediate South China Sea talks which was made by Secretary Clinton on a visit to Hanoi last year. It’s in Vietnam’s best interests to internationalize the conflict and try to escape its weak bilateral negotiating position vis-à-vis China. One of the best ways to accomplish this is short-term sabre rattling to pressure China into entering into a multilateral dialogue. If Beijing doesn’t bite, it risks being labelled as unwilling or unable to ensure stability in the region.

It should be noted however that Hanoi is playing somewhat of a dangerous game given the anti-China strain of Vietnamese nationalism. There have already been sparse anti-China protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. If the Vietnamese government isn’t careful, it may fast find itself presiding over a populist anti-China wave that it cannot control.

It’s quite unlikely that there will be any dovish overtures coming from Beijing regarding a settlement in the South China Sea. China’s geopolitical worldview is still transitioning from the ‘peaceful rise’ (primarily aimed at avoiding a containment policy from the United States and its allies) into a more conventional regional strategy predicated on securing vital military and economic interests. In regards to the latter, the South China Sea is high up on the list for its value in strategic resources, shipping lanes, and finally its importance in pushing China’s security perimeter out from the coast. Another factor mitigating against a quick negotiated solution is the CCP’s impending political succession in 2012. Candidates will be sure to avoid any stances that could be construed as weak as they continue to jockey for support behind closed doors.

The US government will surely be watching this situation with great interest. Last year, we witnessed an extremely important implicit agreement be reached between Washington and Hanoi; mainly that the latter would offer the US a seat at the South China Sea table in exchange for negotiating leverage against China. This is critical for it proves that, despite the obvious historical baggage that exists between Washington and Hanoi, neighbouring states are still extremely nervous about China’s rise.  

A negotiated solution over the short-term is quite unlikely, and if Vietnam does manage to internationalize the conflict, we can expect multilateral negotiations to be long and arduous. From a broader perspective, the course of this conflict will be illustrative as to whether or not US military power is actually a stabilizing force in East Asia.

Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com

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  • China Lee

    Vietnamese and Filipinos should stop encroaching on thousand-year-old Chinese territory.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paracel_Islands

    “The coast belonged to the Kingdom of Cauchi China.”


    * There are some Chinese cultural relics in the Paracel islands dating from the Tang and Song dynasty eras[12][note 1], and there is some evidence of Chinese habitation on the islands in these periods.[13].”

  • mbelle

    China sure has history, but history has passed them by and new countries and ideals has sprung up around them while they were embroiled in their own concerns. Other people have occupied and laid claim to lands and territories they used to own. Finders keepers, losers weepers. If they really cared, they could have kept their territories by protecting them, not by drawing on old maps that are now history not reality.

  • phil

    If China is not employing a gunboat policy, then what do you call the incursions in the West Philippine Sea and East Sea? It is laughable that just because the area was named the South China Sea it then somehow belongs exclusively to China. Should India then own the Indian Ocean?

    UNCLOS provides for an EEZ, if there are parties to this contention it is between Philippines and Vietnam for both countries had overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones that both can discuss, China is totally out of the picture. We dare China to come with us in ITLOS to contest and defend your historical claim and let the tribunal rule who between the Philippines and China has sovereign rights over the Panatag Shoal.

    Historical claims on their own do not provide historical titles, what else can present an old map where Chinese passes by in the 13th century, so let China face the music and do not cover under its gunboat diplomacy.

    It belongs to ASEAN states and not to China alone. Your 9 dash theory is a slap in the face for these countries.


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