Geopolitics in the South China Sea: Expansionism in the Shadow of North Korean Drama
May 31, 2018 / By Stephen Nagy / GeoPoliticalMonitor
The world’s attention has been captured by the political drama emanating out of Pyongyang and Washington. The cat-and-mouse posturing prior to a potential June summit that may lead to an incremental denuclearization over what is likely going to be a generation masks the critical and potential irreversible geopolitical machinations occurring in the South China Sea (SCS) as China expands its military, economic, and diplomatic influence in the region.
In the wake of China’s rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) July 12th, 2016 decision that China holds no legal claim over any of the waters and formations in the South China Sea, we have seen Beijing incrementally re-enforce its claims through the installation of cruise missiles and anti-aircraft batteries on artificial islands. At the same time, we have seen China fracture ASEAN unity on territorial disputes in the SCS by first courting the Cambodians in July 2012, and then pulling Manila into Beijing’s political orbit following the election of President Duterte in July 2016. The result has been no consensus in ASEAN, no common approach to managing the South China Sea, and an inability to push back against Chinese expansionism.
China as a Disruptor or a Stabilizer?
China’s foreign policy activities in the South China Sea have elicited much criticism by the regional and the international community. Notwithstanding, analysts within China concerning SCS diplomacy are mostly positive in their evaluation of the gains achieved through diplomacy and land reclamation projects/artificial islands building.
According to an unnamed scholar interviewed in Beijing in March 2018, “China’s approach has stabilized the region by fortifying its position in the South China Sea, creating the “good” conditions to agree on a code of conduct (COC)in the SCS.” In the same month, another scholar specializing in maritime affairs in Shanghai added “China has created stability by encouraging Manila to put aside the PCA’s decision in lieu for economic and development cooperation. Look at the Philippines, they are receiving Chinese economic aid, they have access to fishing resourcesin Chinese territories, and Sino-Philippines relations are the best they have been in years.” Only a minority of scholars viewed Beijing’s South China Sea policies as not constructive or as a misstep eliciting its own worst nightmare: the beginning of a containment strategy ushered in by overly assertive policies in the SCS.
The View from Hanoi
While these views may represent Chinese understandings of their diplomatic contributions to stabilizing relations in the SCS, Vietnamese-SCS watchers have deepening concerns over Chinese activities in what Vietnam understands as its own backyard.
Mr. Viet Hoang, a legal expert in Ho Chi Minh City who has conducted many studies on the South China Sea, stresses that the lull in open friction hides the reality that Sino-Vietnamese relations in the SCS is still very tense as Hanoi watches helplessly as Beijing militarizes man-made structures in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, buttressing its military dominance of the region.
His thoughts were echoed by anonymous Vietnamese journalists who stressed that Vietnam has been unable to resist Chinese expansionism due to a lack of resources. As a result, Beijing has firmly consolidated its position in the South China Sea at Hanoi’s expense.
Unnamed scholars at Vietnam’s Diplomatic Academy are concerned that China will use its facilities and weapons to one day block Vietnamese and others’ access to the sea, changing the status quo over the offshore features, and eventually preventing Hanoi from exercising rights as stipulated by UNCLOS. For Vietnam, the South China Sea is not just a territorial dispute, but also a set of maritime disputes which involve different interpretations and applications of UNCLOS. Read more..