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China continues to challenge a rules-based order in the South China Sea

Published 14 Aug 2017

On Tuesday 8 August Professor Emeritus Carlyle Thayer engaged an interested audience at Glover Cottages in a discussion on China’s programme of land reclamation and its efforts to reinstate sovereignty in the South China Sea. He said that undefined maritime borders, coupled with the inability to force cooperation between states, has made the area one of immense importance in shaping Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

Professor Thayer outlined the detrimental implications of China’s aggressive actions, particularly its contentious claims over the Spratly and Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal. China’s ambiguous ‘nine-dash line’ has become a primary cause of tension between itself and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. These states are unable to exercise their economic and security policies without irritating China. Thayer argued that freedom of navigation operations undertaken by the United States have failed effectively to challenge China’s maritime claims. The lack of enforcement provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) will allow China to continue expanding its presence there.

Prospects of reaching a peaceful resolution now depend on diplomatic efforts. ASEAN’s joint ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ aims to establish a binding code of conduct by restoring regional confidence and ensuring freedom of navigation. In practice, however, the Code will only be successful if China agrees to it. Professor Thayer left open the possibility that all might end with a negotiated agreement between the countries involved, but he would not bet on this taking place.


Report by Maneesha Gopalan