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