Webinar on “The South China Sea Dispute: US-China Rivalry, Lawfare and the Prospects for a Code of Conduct”

This webinar discusses the significance of the latest US position on the South China Sea, China’s calculations and objectives, as well as the responses and options of key ASEAN claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines. It will further examine the prospects of ASEAN and China concluding negotiations for a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea by 2021 as well as Japan’s views and position on the disputes in the area.


Friday, 18 September 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute collaborated with the East Asian Institute (EAI) of the National University of Singapore to hold a webinar on “The South China Sea Dispute: US-China Rivalry, Lawfare and the Prospects for a Code of Conduct”. The first-ever joint engagement between the two institutes, the webinar featured a panel consisting of two speakers from  ISEAS, three from EAI and one from the Ateneo Policy Center in the Philippines. The event attracted an international audience of 254 participants and was chaired by ISEAS Senior Fellow Dr Ian Storey.

Dr Ryan Clarke
Dr Ryan Clarke noted the statistical increase in Chinese naval and air activity in the SCS since January this year. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

After opening remarks by the Directors of both institutes, the panel discussion commenced with Dr Ryan Clarke (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, EAI) expounding on recent military-related developments in the South China Sea (SCS). Recalling the Chinese rush to create artificial islands in the SCS particularly in 2013, he observed that the manmade features have evolved from supporting scientific and emergency rescue operations to hosting military-grade infrastructure such as runways and radars. He also noted the statistical increase in Chinese naval and air activity in the SCS since January this year, often involving violations of other countries’ airspaces and exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Dr Clarke was especially concerned about China’s increasing use of its “maritime militia” (i.e. fishing boats) to encroach into other countries’ EEZs. He also highlighted how advances in China’s hypersonic weapons technology can change the dynamics of the SCS dispute. Given that hypersonic missiles are zero-warning weapon systems, Dr Clarke feared that their introduction into the field will “destabilise the traditional models of deterrence”. He also expressed pessimism that a de-escalation pathway would materialise even after the American presidential election in November. According to him, even if a potential Biden administration were to pursue efforts to reduce tensions in the SCS, this gesture might not necessarily be reciprocated by China.  

Dr Li Nan
Dr Li Nan explained that China does not recognise the UNCLOS as a mechanism to settle maritime boundary issues. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Li Nan (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, EAI) outlined China’s position on the SCS and the  “nine-dash line”. China has sought to blame the US for being the “biggest driver of militarisation in the SCS”, rather than admit that its own actions have contributed to tensions between China and the other claimants. This is consistent with China’s long-standing aim of excluding the US and other major external powers from the SCS. Furthermore, Dr Li explained that China does not recognise the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a mechanism to settle maritime boundary issues. This feeds into the Chinese expectation that the forthcoming Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea between ASEAN and China should be “relatively limited”, with a focus on conflict management rather than dispute resolution. On the nine-dash line, Dr Li recounted that the original line included two additional dashes extending to the Gulf of Tonkin, which were removed as a gesture of support for North Vietnam. He also clarified that the nine-dash line was a claim over economic resources of the area rather than outright territorial possession. However, he argued that it is in China’s own interest to abandon the nine-dash line. For one, this will reduce tensions and improve China’s standing with the maritime countries of Southeast Asia. More importantly, such an act will preserve the principle of freedom of navigation, which China as a rising maritime power stands to benefit from. Dr Li also stated that relinquishing the nine-dash line will not adversely impact China’s strategic interests, particularly since it will free China from having to constantly protect and reinforce its “vulnerable” artificial islands in the SCS. 

Dr Lam Peng Er
Dr Lam Peng Er explained that Japan’s strategic priority is to prevent the SCS from becoming “Lake Beijing”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Lam Peng Er (Senior Research Fellow, EAI) introduced the Japanese perspective to the issue. As a non-claimant state, Japan’s strategic priority is to prevent the SCS from becoming “Lake Beijing”. According to Dr Lam, this has been Japan’s consistent policy towards the SCS since the Mischief Reef incident of 1995, and is unlikely to shift even with a change in prime minister or government. For Japan, the South China Sea is a “navigational lifeline”, with 90 per cent of its oil and gas imports passing through the sea. Moreover, Japan is especially sensitive about developments in the SCS, in particular Chinese attempts to “change the status quo by force”, because it fears that China will adopt similar tactics in the East China Sea (which is home to the disputed Senkaku Islands). In order to forestall Chinese dominance in the SCS, Japan has sought to ensure a balance of power in the water body, which includes supporting US military activities in the SCS. Japan has also engaged in bolstering the maritime security capacities of ASEAN member-states and conducting both bilateral and multilateral maritime exercises in the SCS. However, it has refused US requests to participate in operational joint patrols . Dr Lam concluded by identifying three major challenges for Japan in the SCS. The first is the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing power transition in the region. China may become even more assertive in the SCS and the US may feel compelled to push back, which could mean increased pressure on Japan to do more, especially in terms of joint naval operations. The second is the risk that the Japanese posture in the SCS may invite Chinese retaliation in the East China Sea. The third is the possibility that some ASEAN member-states, particularly claimant countries, might bandwagon with China, thus securing Chinese pre-eminence in the region and effectively transforming the SCS into Lake Beijing. 

Ms Hoang Thi Ha
Ms Hoang Thi Ha explained that Vietnam has actively sought to strengthen ASEAN’s institutional stance on the SCS. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms Hoang Thi Ha (Lead Researcher, Political & Security Affairs, ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS) addressed the role and impact of Vietnam’s current ASEAN chairmanship on the SCS issue as well as the state of the CoC negotiations. She explained that Vietnam has actively sought to strengthen ASEAN’s institutional stance on the SCS, particularly with explicit references to the primacy of international law and UNCLOS. This is evident in the language of the Chairman’s Statement in the ASEAN summit in June and the various chair statements issued at the recently-concluded 10+1 sessions with ASEAN’s external partners. While Vietnam was able to put forth those statements due to its prerogative as the ASEAN chair, the stance had the support of other littoral states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Ms Ha however warned that it would be difficult to expect ASEAN as a grouping to collectively adopt a more robust approach to the SCS issue since some member-states are inclined to take the Chinese side. Rather than placing hopes on ASEAN, she instead counselled focus on the gradual convergence of key Southeast Asian littoral states on the SCS issue. This is particularly salient as the CoC negotiations move ahead amidst insistence by external countries that the agreement must be compatible with international law. The fear that CoC should not function as an exclusive ASEAN-China arrangement that adversely affects the rights of passage and exploration of third parties has been acknowledged by Vietnam, which has stated that “the CoC must be recognised by the international community”. This however runs against the Chinese aspiration to create “an amplified positive narrative” that the SCS issue is well-managed by the immediate countries in the region, thus enabling China to forge a regional maritime order that is “more pliable to the Chinese worldview and interests” while excluding the involvement of other external powers. Given such “diametrically-opposed interests and positions”, as well as deep disagreement about the role and relevance of UNCLOS in the CoC, Ms Ha considered the 2021 deadline for the negotiations to be concluded an “improbable target”. 

Dr Le Hong Hiep
Dr Le Hong Hiep opined that China’s bullying behaviour in the SCS may prompt Vietnam to lean more towards the US. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Le Hong Hiep (Fellow, ISEAS) elaborated on Vietnam’s balancing act as the country finds itself in the middle of the US-China rivalry. Given its geographical proximity to China and the SCS, Vietnam is wary about the possibility of tensions between the superpowers erupting into an armed conflict that the country could find itself being dragged into. Nevertheless, Vietnam is conscious that the rivalry has heightened its strategic leverage since both the US and China are actively courting its support. Its main aim should thus be to maximise this strategic leverage without being entangled in the rivalry. Dr Hiep also opined that China’s bullying behaviour in the SCS may prompt Vietnam to lean more towards the US. This is particularly relevant given the continued Chinese efforts to interrupt Vietnam’s exploratory activities in its maritime waters in the SCS, which have prompted Vietnam to recently cancel a contract to explore an oil field near Vanguard Bank. Dr Hiep noted that Vietnam remains open to legal options, which include pursuing a case against China based on the 2016 arbitral ruling, although its path of action is ultimately contingent on Chinese behaviour and the efficacy of diplomatic and political avenues to resolve the issue. Additionally, he was pessimistic that the CoC could be concluded in the next three years, given that key intractable differences still exist between the Vietnamese and Chinese negotiating positions. Moreover, given that Vietnam seeks a “substantive and effective CoC”, Dr Hiep surmised that the country is unlikely to rush the proceedings only to end up with a “toothless agreement” like the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct (DoC) of Parties in the South China Sea.

Mr Julio S. Amador III
Mr Julio S. Amador III stated that the Philippines remains steadfast in asserting its rights through diplomatic means. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In enumerating various incidents occurring in the first half of the year that involved Chinese violations of the Philippines’ sovereign interests, Mr Julio S. Amador III (Executive Director, Philippine-American Educational Foundation and Senior Research Fellow, Ateneo Policy Center) stated that the Philippines remains steadfast in asserting its rights through diplomatic means. This included protesting against China’s creation of new administrative units covering the Spratly and Paracel Islands in April and sending a diplomatic protest note after Philippine fishing vessels were confiscated in May. The Philippines have also issued statements affirming the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling and the need to honour international law. Mr Amador noted that even President Rodrigo Duterte, generally perceived to have pro-China leanings, has been consistent in asking fellow countries to adhere to UNCLOS and reiterating to China that the SCS dispute must be resolved according to international law. Similar to other panellists, Mr Amador was not sanguine about the progress of the CoC, predicting that it is unlikely that the countries would be willing to conduct online negotiations on such a sensitive issue in order to meet the 2021 deadline. He was also cognisant that the proceedings will be very complex, since the CoC involves not a bilateral negotiation between ASEAN and China, but eleven different parties, each with their own respective interests and positions.  

During the subsequent Q&A session with the audience, the various panel speakers delved into certain issues in greater depth. For instance, in response to a question by an audience member about the possible domestic backlash if the Chinese leadership were to withdraw their claim over the nine-dash line, Dr Li Nan explained that the capacity for public opinion in China to influence foreign policy has generally been “overstated”. He identified “institutional dynamics”, particularly the role of the People’s Liberation Army, as a more important determinant of Chinese foreign policy. Queried about the impact of China’s refusal to recognise the 2016 arbitral ruling and their persistent violations of the EEZ rights of other SCS claimants, Dr Clarke acknowledged that Chinese behaviour has undermined the credibility of UNCLOS and the international law regime. To this, Dr Lam argued that China, as one of the Permanent Five (P5) powers of the United Nations, should be fully committed to international law instead of “cherry-picking” the elements that it wants to abide to. Asked about how China could broach a de-escalation of tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines, Ms Ha, Dr Hiep and Mr Amador all concurred that it was important for China to halt their incursions into the EEZs of other claimant states. Other topics addressed include the possibility of China establishing an Air Defence Identification Zone over the Spratlys and Paracels, the roles and interests of non-claimant and/or non-ASEAN states in the CoC process, and the prospects for ASEAN to address the SCS and CoC issues under the forthcoming chairmanships of Brunei and Cambodia in 2021 and 2022.

Click here to download the Welcoming Remarks by Mr Choi Shing Kwok.

Over 250 participants attended the webinar. The webinar was chaired by Dr Ian Storey. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)