China is winning without fighting in South China Sea

The Communist Party of China is destabilizing the region and jeopardizing the prosperity bring forth by maritime trade.

An estimated US$3.4 trillion worth of international shipping trade passes through the South China Sea (SCS) each year.  Without firing a single shot, but with propaganda, coercion and intimidation, the Communist Party of China (CCP) is gaining effective control of the SCS, an area of economic, strategic and political importance. 

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2011, one of his first acts was orchestrated the takeover of Scarborough Shoal between April and June 2012.  Former Filipino president Benigno Aquino traveled to the U.S. to personally request the support of President Barack Obama, but in that era of China appeasement, he received no outright support.  

Sensing a window of opportunity, Xi seized the sovereign rights of Scarborough Shoal from a U.S. treaty ally.  Obama’s acquiescence of China’s seizure, a significant political event that exposed the downward spiral of U.S.’ influence in Asia, was a turning point in the changing regional geopolitical landscape and it gave rise to Xi’s policy of expansionism in SCS.  The rest of the Southeast Asian countries took note of Obama’s weakness, pivoted to and built stronger ties with China.  

On September 25, 2015, Xi stood with Obama in the White House Rose Garden, and in front of an international audience, lied through his teeth.  Xi promised there would be no militarization in the SCS. However, in the years since, he has actively approved island-building and naval base-construction activities, as well as used maritime forces including a fishing militia to assert China’s unlawful Nine-Dash Line claim to almost the whole of SCS.  

CCP’s gray zone operations in South China Sea

Utilizing an integrated and multidimensional strategy, including a combination of economic, military and diplomatic tactics and gray zone operations, for example, employing incremental actions, none of which by itself will cause a military confrontation, to gradually change the status quo in China’s favor.  And facing no meaningful resistance from other claimants, Xi has succeed in conquering the SCS.  

Xi’s large-scale island-building and base-construction activities reportedly began around December 2013.  China has gradually expanded its control and influence by increasing the size of existing islands, creating new artificial islands, piling sand onto existing reefs, and constructing ports, military installations and airstrips.  China has also deployed fighter jets, cruise missiles and a radar system.  Additionally, China has sent armed fishing militia to patrol disputed waters and to chase away local fishermen.  

To give the gray zone operations a cloak of legitimacy and to normalize its belligerent actions, China enacted two new maritime laws in 2021, firstly to require all foreign vessels in disputed waters to report sensitive information such as name, call sign, current position, destination and cargo, and secondly, to explicitly authorize the Chinese Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels.

CCP refuses to accept legally-binding UNCLOS ruling

On July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), in a case raised by the Philippines, rejected China’s maritime claims in the SCS as having no basis under international law.  Even as the Tribunal’s ruling was final and legally binding on both parties, China, while being a State Party to UNCLOS which established the Tribunal, refused to accept the ruling.  

Xi’s refusal to acknowledge and accept the 2016 ruling was a direct challenge to a rules-based order, and was another strong sign that he has no qualms about going up against anyone if it suits his political agenda.  This snub was a dangerous precedent as Xi has shown that UNCLOS’ conflict management and dispute settlement mechanisms are not working with authoritarian regimes and this will have wide-ranging implications for the world.

In a show of force against anyone who dares to stand up to Xi, on November 23, 2016, Hong Kong customs authorities impounded nine of Singapore’s army Terrex infantry carrier vehicles and other military equipment from a ship docked at the container terminal while it was in transit from Kaohsiung, Taiwan to Singapore.  Xi wanted to make an example out of Singapore because Singapore has voiced support for a rules-based order in the SCS disputes.

Might is right?

In recent decades, due in large part to the cascading effect of maritime trade, Southeast Asian countries have undergone exceptional economic progress, have seen millions of citizens entered the middle-class rank and the region has become an important engine of global economic growth.  

The SCS is also an important maritime route through which East Asian countries rely heavily for the flow of oil and gas, including 80 percent of crude oil flowing to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In addition, SCS contains potentially significant oil and gas exploration areas.  

However, today, Southeast Asian countries and all other countries that depend on the SCS for maritime trade face unprecedented challenges from China to their sovereignty, prosperity and peace.  

There is a growing tug of war between free trade and a repressive future of maritime trade where might is right and where authoritarian leaders can and will dictate whatever laws that suit their purposes, at the expense of other countries’ sovereignty.

The failure of Southeast Asian and CCP officials to resolve the SCS disputes till now after many years highlighted the fact that dialogues and legal mechanisms do not work with Xi.  Xi’s policies are an obstacle to the unimpeded flow of commerce.

Therefore, all stakeholders who wish to continue to prosper via maritime trade have a shared responsibility to uphold freedom of the seas and a rules-based order which underpin a free and open SCS.  Stakeholders will have to do more to stand up to China’s illegal Nine-Dash Line claim and ensure that the future of the SCS is one of freedom and openness.  If not, there is a very real danger that Xi will turn the SCS into China’s internal sea.

Photo credit: iStock/ zhanglianxun

Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • News & key insights covering the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on maritime corruption and more
  • Exclusive interviews