Spearhead Special Report – 11.10.2018
By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
For Beijing, the issue of the South China Sea and its security is of paramount importance. Lately it has doubled-down on its efforts to gain greater control over not only the sea but also the airspace. From China’s perspective, in the current context the biggest threat to national security would be the naval dominance of a Japan and Australia backed United States in the Western Pacific.
Up until recently however, China toned-down some of its more overt intimidation tactics. As competition between the US and China intensifies, there is fear in the region that Beijing may be downplaying the potential benefits of allowing a greater role to other powers like the US, in order to further its own objectives associated with establishing regional primacy. Even though the United States holds no position over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea region, not even in relation to its ally the Philippines, Washington continues to display signs of eagerness towards managing tensions with respect to maritime security in the South China Sea region.
Driven by anxiousness over China’s ‘true intentions’, some ASEAN states advocate for a greater role of other external powers. Forums like the East Asia Summit (EAS) have been used by the ASEAN in hopes that a diverse mix of countries will help keep balance between relevant powers in check. Generally ASEAN member states have given precedence to regional peace and stability over sovereignty concerns. The seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 is a case in point. ASEAN statements continued to emphasize the non-use of force and resolution through negotiation, at the same time they also put in place rules like the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the SCS, and the Code of Conduct building on the DOC.
All Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam), China, and outside powers like the United States hold significantly different security concerns, priorities and visions for cooperation and security in the larger region. There is a notable divide on the simplest of questions pertaining to security; on the region’s most vulnerable countries, the obstacles to security and the prioritization of security concerns. Opinions vary between South China Sea littoral countries including China, and the United States and outside powers. With the eighth Xiangshan Forum to take place this October, it is important to examine challenges to cooperation awaiting countries that will soon engage in debate over the crucial South China Sea issue. This paper tackles the different understandings of security between stakeholders in the South China Sea issue. It will examine major obstacles to cooperation on security in the region, and discuss cooperation in the current context as a real possibility.