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Power and politics in the South China Sea

05 October 2017 Jane's Editorial Staff

One year since the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling that China does not enjoy historic rights within its "nine dash" claim line little seems to have changed on the ground. However China has made efforts to engage with regional states diplomatically and one consequence of this has been the agreement of a draft Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea (SCS). This CoC is not expected to be legally binding nor provide dispute settlement mechanisms. It also remains to be seen just how the CoC is finally negotiated and what countries are party to it.

United States Freedom of Navigation Operations

In late May 2017 the United States Navy resumed its freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the South China Sea after a gap of around seven months. Under the Trump administration the US Navy has undertaken two FONOPs, one in the Spratlys and one in the Paracels. Both of these saw US vessels sail within twelve nautical miles of the features controlled by China. Beijing has protested against United States Navy operations in the South China Sea and stated that "the Chinese side will continue to take all necessary means to defend national sovereignty and security."

Naval Capabilities - Modernisation Efforts Continue

Modernisation efforts of naval capabilities are continuing throughout the region and these efforts can be viewed as a response to the increased 'routine' presence of Chinese naval and non-naval vessels in contested waters. While the majority of the claimants are expanding existing structures, China and Vietnam have also undertaken the creation of terrain where they did not earlier maintain a military outpost. While China seems to be expanding its naval areas of operations in the region, efforts by other countries have focused on mitigating the possibility of reduced access as a consequence of Chinese presence.

Air Power - The Next Step in the South China Sea's Strategic Evolution

Air power will become increasingly crucial within the South China Sea's maritime environment as China's growing naval presence in the region will increasingly be backed by air power. China, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam are building or upgrading runways on islands in the region. China's facilities in the Spratlys now mean that they have airbases more than 700 miles south of the Chinese mainland. With vast expanses of the South China Sea requiring the use of air assets to maintain effective situational awareness, there are clear signs that air power is going to be an increasingly important aspect moving forward.

Possible future scenarios for the South China Sea Disputes

US position

The United States has stressed the need for diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes, which means that Washington does not see military action as a first choice. In the view of Jane's analysts, the United States is likely to rally diplomatic support from South East Asian nations and build a broader coalition to counter China's ambitions in the area. Nonetheless the United States is determined to defend its strategic interests and freedom of navigation in the area.

Chinese position

China is likely to continue oppose US intervention in South China Sea disputes, arguing that it wants to resolve disputes through negotiation with the parties directly concerned. China is likely to continue enhancing bilateral diplomatic, economic and defence ties with the countries in the region and prevent any escalations of tensions that could the United States a justification to step up its military presence in the region.

This blog post is an extract from a Jane's Intelligence Briefing held on 2nd August 2017, which was compiled using Jane's open source data and expert analysis on political stability, military capabilities, national security concerns and international relations. For more information visit Jane's Military and Security Assessments Intelligence Centre.

Jane's Editorial Staff
Posted 5 October 2017


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