2016: A Tough Year for China in the South China Sea

Beijing is likely to face several challenges in its policy towards the South China Sea, from US military patrols to a possible new stance from Taiwan.

South China Sea tension has been at the centre of AsiaPacific regional politics since 2009. However, since 2015, a new set of strategic dynamics has dominated regional tensions. In 2016, China is expected to face four challenges in its policy towards the South China Sea—how it should respond to America’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs); deal with a US-centred regional coalition that wants to curtail China’s positions; respond to the outcome of an international arbitration case initiated by
the Philippines; and respond to a possible new stance from Taiwan’s new leadership of the pro-independence Tsai Ingwen on the claims to the South China Sea.

The immediate trigger of the new strategic trends was China’s significant decision to reclaim land and build islands in the Spratly Island chain of the South China Sea in late 2013. The United States has
responded with two FONOPs since last October.

So far, US operations and Chinese reactions at sea were relatively restrained. But China is deeply unhappy with US assertions of military power in this manner. The United States and some regional states may hope that, with sustained diplomatic and military pressure, FONOPs will eventually be able to impose appropriately adequate costs on China to force the Chinese leadership to do some rethinking. But that could probably yield contradictory and far more dangerous outcomes. That is, facing what it perceives as an unrelenting affront from the United States while at the same time contending with the rising pressure from domestic nationalism, China’s leadership may decide to arm the newly constructed islands to fend off US threats. Between backing off and arming the islands, China has a number of policy choices to consider. None of them is likely to be easy.

The US adoption of FONOPs as the main response to China’s island-building has presented China with an additional challenge. There are now signs that the United States is trying to build a regional multilateral framework to support its FONOPs, making what it originally intends to be a unilateral show of force into a broad-based multilateral endeavour. Australia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea—all US treaty allies—have openly supported US operations and may join US patrols in the future. Meanwhile, Singapore has agreed to host a temporary deployment of a US P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft for operation over the South China Sea. Even Vietnam—a claimant state with an uneasy attitude towards the United States—appears to be supporting FONOPs, judging from its response to the latest sail-by of the USS Curtis Wilbur. Dealing with the emerging regional coalition of various states supporting US actions is thus the second challenge facing China’s South China Sea policy this year.

The third challenge, despite being considered a “soft” area of international law, is potentially more serious in the immediate future. Coming May, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea is expected to rule in favour of the Philippines in a case Manila filed against Beijing in 2013 over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. When the Philippines initiated this arbitration process, China declared its position that it will not participate in the proceedings and accept any rulings. If China totally disregards the court’s judgement, it would undoubtedly be perceived as an outlaw state in defiance of international law by the United States and other regional states. This would create new opportunities for the United States and its regional coalition to exert further pressure and impose additional costs on China.

A fourth challenge has emerged beyond Beijing’s control despite the fact that Taiwan’s position on the South China Sea is largely supportive of Beijing’s policy during the Ma Yingjeou administration for the past eight years. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has inherited many of its policy positions in this area from the Republic of China (ROC) exiled to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war in 1949. However, the election of Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party known for her pro-independence penchant, as Taiwan’s next president may change Taiwan’s role as a positive force for Beijing’s claims. If, for example, Tsai decides to modify Taiwan’s position on the nine-dash line, which forms the historical basis of both the PRC and ROC claims and is central to the recent round of disputes, this will have massive consequences to China’s positions.

Year 2016 is indeed likely to be a tough year for China’s South China Sea policy. As it struggles with an effective response to US FONOPs, ponders the significance of a new regional coalition against its policies, gets anxious over the outcome of the Philippines arbitration case and worries about
a possible new stance from Taiwan’s new government under Tsai Ing-wen, how well can Beijing navigate the treacherous waters of the South China Sea this year?

© National University of Singapore

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Feng Zhang is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University’s Department of International Relations, Deputy Director (Higher Degree by Research) of the ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and a member of the executive committee of the Australian Centre on China in the World based at the ANU. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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