Category Archives: South-East Asia

Apr 2018

Why stability in the South China Sea matters

China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea are putting Europe’s economic interests in the area at risk. More than one third of Europe’s external trade takes place with the Indo-Pacific region and any escalation of tensions in this area will undoubtedly have a direct impact on Europe.

China has recently stepped up claims over large swaths of the South China Sea. These claims are not only based on economic and security considerations, but also on national identity and the renewal of China’s past grandeur. President Xi Jinping’s reiteration of his vision of a “Chinese dream”, as most recently outlined during the 13th National People’s Congress held in Beijing in March 2018, reflects these efforts to rebrand China’s image and polish its credentials as a global actor. Xi’s closing speech at the 2018 National People’s Congress chimed with an increasingly assertive foreign policy, in particular when he cited China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea as one of the key accomplishments of his presidency. This implicitly linked his vision of a Chinese dream and the rejuvenation of the country with the idea of restoring the glory of the ancient times, when China presided over a Sino-centric order in East Asia.

China is now building artificial islands, installing military facilities, drilling for oil and gas, and chasing off vessels belonging to its Southeast Asian neighbours from waters that international organizations – such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Hague Tribunal – say they can operate in.

Militarisation of islands in the South China Sea

Militarisation of islands in the South China Sea

There appears to be a glaring division between the West and China when it comes to the application of international law to sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. In July 2016, after more than three years of deliberation, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rendered its award in the Arbitration between the Philippines and China, making it clear that China’s extensive claims to maritime areas within the so-called “nine-dash line” are incompatible with UNCLOS and therefore illegitimate. The tribunal also underscored that none of the land features claimed by China qualify as “islands” – something that would in turn warrant the claiming of an exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China strongly condemned the ruling, declaring it “null and void” and questioned the legitimacy of the tribunal itself, prompting other claimants to reinforce their actions and the US to intensify its freedom of navigation operations to deter Beijing from adopting more confrontational policies in the future.

At the 31st ASEAN summit in Manila in November 2017, China agreed to begin talks with the regional body on details of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. Yet, no timeframe has been given for an agreement and many in the region are sceptical about Chinese intentions. It is hoped that a compromise – including joint exploitation of ressources – will be eventually found between China and the other claimant nations. Also the West has a strategic interest in the maintenance of a stable regional environment which would allow economic growth and prosperity to continue.

An earlier and expanded version of this article was published in the ISNblog

Aug 2015

Dispute for islands in the South China Sea heats up

Global companies operating in South East Asia should pay attention to rising tensions between China and some of its neighbours over disputed islands. These dynamics, if not properly managed, could impact their business and shipping operations.

China is investing in a ‘modern maritime military force’ to protect the country’s ‘maritime rights and interests.’ The force will assist in asserting China’s claims over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. In May 2015, Beijing released its first ever White Paper on military strategy. The Paper outlines plans to build military forces with expeditionary capabilities, including naval and air platforms that can operate over long ranges.

Beijing aims to move from ‘near seas defence’ to a combination of ‘near seas defence’ and ‘far seas protection,’ which would involve at least a limited power projection capability. The force would allow China to show resolve at points of contention, such as disputed islands in the South China Sea. China has long said that it owns most of the reefs and islands in the South China Sea, buttressing pretensions to more vaguely defined rights to most of the Sea itself.

Source: World Review (

Source: World Review (

In recent years, Beijing has intensified construction on islands of military installations, some of which could be used for offensive purposes against other claimant states. These facilities include an airstrip, garrisons, air-defence batteries and radar and communications equipment. The new infrastructure boosts China’s ability to patrol surrounding waters and monitor the activities of other claimants.

Beijing seems intent on making enforceable the strongest possible claim to civil control of the disputed areas, leading eventually to formal legal control. This can be achieved by asserting physical control at specific points through the use of coastguard vessels to protect fishing rights and to ward off others. Moreover, China is deploying flotillas of trawlers and patrol vessels to protect the interests of its national oil company, which is drilling in disputed waters and now physically enlarging and developing atolls in the Paracel Islands.

At the end of June, Beijing announced that it had completed some of its land reclamation activities on the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by other countries in the region. Before January 2014, the Chinese presence in the Spratlys consisted of a few concrete blockhouses perched on top of seven coral atolls. Today, these reef-based constructions have grown from five acres to an area covering 2,000 acres.

By asserting, in no uncertain terms, that it considers this area to be its exclusive domain, Beijing is heightening tensions with its neighbours and the United States. As a result, military spending in the region is increasing. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has found that major South East Asian naval powers have increased their defence spending by more than one and a half times since 2003, while China’s spending has grown more than fivefold in the same period. China’s South Sea Fleet has more major surface ships than all the South East Asian countries combined.

The waters of and the airspace above the South China Sea are filling up with military hardware as the dispute for islands heats up. Companies operating in the area should pay close scrutiny to these dynamics, including the potential impact of rising tensions for their business.

An enlarged version of this article was published in World Review