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How Dangerous is The South China Sea?

05 Dec 2019
By Dr Huiyun Feng
A Coast Guard patrol vessel passes by Uotsuri, the largest island in the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain. Now uninhabited, it used to be home to 248 Japanese, in a community of 99 houses in the late 1890s. They were mostly employed working in a Bonito flake factory on the island. Photo by Al Jazeera English. Source: https://bit.ly/2Ldgfbh

While territorial disputes in the South China Sea are hotly debated in international relations, they hold relatively little weight in the grand scheme of China’s security concerns.

Both China and the United States emphasised the strategic importance of the South China Sea (SCS) in their recent official documents. China’s 2019 Defense White Paper stresses:

The South China Sea islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory. China is committed to resolving related disputes through negotiations with those states directly involved on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law. China continues to work with regional countries to jointly maintain peace and stability. It firmly upholds freedom of navigation and overflight by all countries in accordance with international law and safeguards the security of sea lines of communication (SLOCs).

The US 2018 National Defence Strategy listed China along with Russia as peer competitors. It stated:

the challenge China presents is particularly daunting…China is using military, paramilitary, and diplomatic measures to coerce US allies and partners from Japan to India; contest international law and freedom of navigation in crucial waterways such as the South China Sea; undermine the US position in East and Southeast Asia; and otherwise seek a position of geopolitical dominance.

A recent Pew Global Attitude survey shows that American public negative perception of China rose from 47 percent in 2018 to 60 percent and 24 percent naming China as America’s top threat.

Is the South China Sea primed for military conflicts between the United States and China? What are the implications for regional countries? A collaborated survey project by Griffith University and Tsinghua University funded by the MacArthur Foundation reveals some interesting findings (please see forthcoming books for more detail about the project: How China Sees the World; China’s Rise and Its Challenge to the International Order). The surveys of Chinese International Relations (IR) scholars were conducted at the annual convention of the Chinese Community of Political Science and International Studies from 2014 to 2017. Results indicated that China’s top security threats in the next 10 years are Taiwan, North Korea, and the East China Sea (ESC), not the SCS. Territorial disputes are perceived as top threats to Chinese national security and US-China relations, and Taiwan and the SCS are seen as increasingly dangerous. However, the SCS is perceived as involving only low-scale diplomatic and military conflict. In comparison, the ECS poses higher danger and the US is more likely to intervene in a China and Japan conflict, according to the survey research. In 2017, 71 percent of the participants thought the rules-based order discussed at the Shangri-La dialogue to be “reasonable” or “very reasonable.” Despite the SCS disputes, China-ASEAN relations remain largely “good” and “very good.”

A textual analysis of Chinese scholarly publications in top Chinese IR journals concurs with the survey results that the SCS is dangerous but not conflictual. Chinese scholars highlight that the SCS disputes reflect perceptual differences on international order between the US and China. While China emphasises the significance of sovereignty-based international order, the US, Vietnam, and the Philippines underscore the rules-based international order. US involvement in the SCS is seen as double edged: it is a constraint on China but may falsely encourage risky behaviour from US allies and partners, thus leading to an unintended escalation in the SCS. Chinese scholars criticise the media for reading too much into China’s strategy and exaggerate China’s island building, which “will not be helpful to easing the tension as no country wants conflict.” They underline the need for inter-institution coordination among diplomats, the military and trade bureau, the coast guards, the fisheries administrations, the meteorological administrations, etc. They also propose building bilateral maritime collaboration, especially with ASEAN, on consultation and crisis management, maritime disaster rescue and relief, fishing, maritime environmental protection, oceanic diversity protection, and other research projects. On the Hague ruling, Chinese scholars disqualify it as non-applicable and biased.

If Chinese scholars can be treated as an indicator of the attitudes of Chinese policy elites, the above findings show that despite increasing importance on China’s security agenda, the SCS has not become a battlefield between China and the United States. China does not perceive grave danger in the SCS in comparison to the ECS because the United States has publicly stated that the US alliance commitment with Japan applies to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Instead, Chinese scholars believe that the SCS is just a playground for great powers, especially the United States and China, to show off their strategic resolve and military might.

The SCS disputes are seen as a part of the US-China security competition: dangerous, but manageable. The US FON operations are critical for the US to signal its resolve and leadership to “challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.” Although China emphasises territorial integrity on the SCS issue, Beijing’s actions are more symbolic for a domestic audience and for sending a clear message to the US and others. ASEAN and other regional players could cautiously take this strategic opportunity to strengthen existing institutional building efforts. They could also rely on international institutions and international laws to constrain state behaviour, especially that of the United States and China.

Dr Huiyun Feng is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, Australia.

This is the seventh article in a series of articles on the South China Sea published on Australian Outlook, first prepared for a workshop on the South China Sea, hosted by the Maritime Security Research Group at UNSW Canberra.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.