The South China Sea Dispute (Part 2): Friction to Remain the Status Quo

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 13

Chinese Ships Exercising in the South China Sea in June

China’s policy toward the South China Sea dispute remains fundamentally unchanged under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. Over the past six months, Beijing has tried to reassure neighboring countries of China’s peaceful rise, but also its determination to uphold its territorial and jurisdictional claims in the maritime domain. While China views these two positions as being in harmony, countries across the Asia-Pacific region are dismayed at the apparent contradiction between them. This article examines China’s diplomatic signaling, its military activities in the South China Sea, and Southeast Asian, U.S. and Japanese views of the dispute. It ends with the prediction that the status quo will continue throughout 2013 and 2014. Although the prospect of major conflict is slight, there will be no resolution of the dispute, friction among the disputants will continue and efforts to better manage the problem are likely to prove ineffective. This article builds on the assessment of developments in the South China Sea since January elaborated in Part 1 of this two-part essay (“The South China Sea Dispute (Part 1): Negative Trends Continue in 2013,” China Brief, June 7).  

China’s Message of Reassurance and Resolve 

During the first six months of 2013, China’s new leadership sent out a clear and consistent two-part message regarding its stance over maritime disputes: China’s intentions are peaceful but Beijing will respond assertively to provocations that challenge China’s territorial and sovereignty claims.  

That uncompromising message was delivered at all levels. In late January, six weeks before his appointment as president, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, reportedly told senior party officials that while his government remained committed to “peaceful development” it would “never sacrifice our national core interests” or “swallow the ‘bitter fruit’ of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests” (Xinhua, January 29). In April, at the opening of the Boao Forum on Hainan Island, Xi concisely reiterated that message: “On the basis of firmly upholding its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, China will maintain good relations with its neighbors and overall peace and stability in our region” (Xinhua, April 18).  

A few weeks earlier, Premier Li Keqiang had told reporters that “China has an unswerving commitment to peaceful development and unshakeable determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity” and that there was no contradiction between these two pledges; indeed, he went on, “they are essential to regional stability and world peace” (Xinhua, March 17).  

In May, during a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa in Jakarta, newly-installed Foreign Minister Wang Yi expanded on this message in the context of the South China Sea dispute. Wang restated China’s sovereignty claims over the Spratly Islands, as well as the government’s “determination to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He added that, although China remained committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, implementing the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), and resolving disputes peacefully on a bilateral basis, it would also remain “vigilant” against “potential disturbances of some countries for their own interests”—a veiled reference to Vietnam and the Philippines. On a more positive note, however, Wang also indicated that Beijing was ready to start discussions on a code of conduct (CoC) (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 2). 

The following month, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the head of the Chinese delegation, Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, delivered a speech replete with platitudes on China’s “peaceful development.” Qi also stressed, however, that China’s willingness to engage in dialogue on disputed areas did not denote “unconditional compromise,” and that Beijing’s “resolve and commitment to safeguarding core national interests always stands steadfast” [1]. In the Q&A session that followed, Qi brushed aside pointed questions regarding regional anxieties over Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, affirming that it was China’s right to conduct naval patrols in both areas to “exert sovereign power.” 

The Disconnect Between Words and Deeds

China’s words of reassurance were, however, wholly undercut by its actions in the South China Sea from January onwards. As part of a policy to strengthen its claims in the area, Beijing undertook a series of measures that rattled the nerves of neighboring countries. 

On January 1, China issued a new official map which for the first time marked in detail the more than 130 islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea that Beijing claims (Xinhua, January 1). The map also shows the so-called “nine-dash line” in the same format as the country’s national borders, though there is an element of ambiguity as the key designates the color scheme as “border/undetermined border.” 

Within the nine-dash line, the PLA Navy (PLAN) conducted a number of high-profile maneuvers designed in part to send a clear message of resolve to the Southeast Asian claimants. From January 31 to February 8, for instance, a Chinese guided missile destroyer and two frigates from the North Sea Fleet held “combat readiness” exercises in the Spratlys “related to expelling ships that infringe on China’s territorial waters” (Xinhua, February 8). In late May, for the first time since 2010, PLAN vessels belonging to all three fleets conducted an exercise in the South China Sea (South China Morning Post, May 27). 

More noteworthy was a 16-day patrol by a flotilla of four Chinese warships consisting of the advanced amphibious landing ship Jinggangshan, a destroyer and two frigates. On March 26, the task force conducted simulated amphibious landings near the disputed James Shoal, a mere 50 miles off the Malaysian coast. China’s media reported that during the voyage naval personnel pledged to “defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive toward the dream of a strong China” (South China Morning Post, March 28; “South Sea Fleet Exercises Shine Spotlight on Tensions,” China Brief, March 28). The exercises demonstrated China possessed the military capabilities to enforce its sovereignty claims at the outermost limits of its nine-dash line. The mission was given the highest-level stamp of approval when, on their return to Sanya naval base on Hainan Island, President Xi inspected the ships and reportedly urged the sailors to be “better prepared” for military conflict (South China Morning Post, April 12).  

According to Malaysia’s foreign ministry, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) was unaware of the presence of the PLAN warships at James Shoal, but this was later contradicted by the chief of the navy, Admiral Abdul Aziz Jaafar, who said the flotilla had been tracked by the RMN (Jane’s Defence Weekly, April 17). At any rate the presence of a powerful flotilla of Chinese warships at James Shoal—possibly for the first time since 1987—unnerved Malaysia’s security establishment. Malaysian academic Tang Siew Mun argued the exercise had undermined Sino-Malaysian relations and may even have “sowed the seeds for Malaysia to rethink its China strategy” (New Straits Times, April 16).  

That the exercises also took place so close to Brunei—this year’s ASEAN Chair—cannot have been mere coincidence. The Brunei government, however, did not comment on the incident. Both Malaysia and Brunei tend to downplay tensions in the South China Sea, and the dispute is not a major bilateral irritant in the same way as it is between China and Vietnam and the Philippines. However, as the PLAN expands its presence southwards, overlapping claims may generate greater friction in both Sino-Malaysian and Sino-Bruneian relations. 

In May, Chinese naval activities at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys spooked the Philippines. On May 8, a Chinese frigate and two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels had arrived at the shoal apparently to escort a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats. The Philippine government protested their presence as “illegal and provocative” (Washington Post, May 21). The shoal lies 120 miles northwest of Palawan Island, close to Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef, and within the Philippines’ claimed 200 nautical miles EEZ. In 1999, the Philippines occupied the shoal by deliberately running aground a World War II-era landing ship on it. Approximately a dozen Filipino Marines are stationed on the rusting hulk. The concern in Manila was that China intended to seize the shoal by blockading it and forcing the Marines to withdraw. The frigate and fishing boats later departed, but the CMS vessel remains on station at the time of writing. During the incident the Philippine press drew attention to a television interview given by Major General Zhang Zhaozhang, a professor at China’s National Defense University, in which he described measures to “seal and control” Scarborough Shoal as a “cabbage strategy” consisting of an outer layer of PLAN warships and an inner layer of civilian maritime agency vessels (Philippine Star, May 31). Zhang indicated that this strategy was being employed at Second Thomas Shoal. 

A more peaceful demonstration of China’s determination to uphold its sovereignty claims was the visit by a Chinese cruise ship to the Paracel Islands in April. The four-day cruise, which was restricted to Chinese citizens, carried 300 passengers, mainly government officials. The cruise is scheduled to run one or twice a month.  

Vietnam—which does not recognize China’s 1974 occupation of the Paracels—criticized the voyage as a violation of the DoC (International Herald Tribune, April 30). In his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung alluded to the disconnect between China’s words and deeds when, without actually mentioning China, he stated “Somewhere in the region, there have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims, and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics.” To reduce tensions in the South China Sea, Dung urged ASEAN and China to “strictly implement” the DoC and “redouble efforts” to formulate a CoC. A month earlier, at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Brunei, Vietnam had proposed a “no first use of force” agreement for the South China Sea (Straits Times, June 3). China has yet to respond officially to Vietnam’s initiative. 

U.S. and Japanese Views 

Much to China’s chagrin, both the United States and Japan continued to voice their concerns over negative developments in the South China Sea. Chinese media commentaries repeatedly have accused Washington of “meddling” in the dispute and fueling tensions as a pretext to “contain” China. While senior Obama administration officials have stressed that the ”pivot” or “rebalance” is not aimed at undermining Chinese interests or inhibiting the country’s rise, on March 12, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper conceded to Congress that China’s “uncompromising positions” over maritime disputes was partly a reaction to the pivot (Associated Press, March 15).  

Nevertheless, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to the Asian rebalance. As part of the new strategy the first of the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships to be “forward deployed” to Singapore, the USS Freedom, arrived at Changi Naval Base on April 18. Hagel also noted discussions between Washington and Manila to increase rotational deployment of U.S. forces in the Philippines, as well as increased dialogue with Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia on “maritime security”—a euphemism for territorial and boundary disputes at sea. On the South China Sea, he urged the claimants to exercise self-restraint, settle their disputes peacefully using international law—including “adjudication resolution mechanisms,” a gesture of support for the Philippines’ submission to the UN in January—and agree on a CoC.  

According to the China Daily, Japan has joined America to “fish in troubled waters” in the South China Sea (China Daily, May 4). Although Japan is not a claimant, it is an important stakeholder in the dispute as a major maritime trading power. As tensions have risen over the past few years, it has been more vocal in expressing its concerns [2]. Indeed, in a written speech in January, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that the South China Sea risked being transformed into “Lake Beijing” [3].  

Japan has been unnerved at Chinese moves to strengthen its claims in the South China Sea, and it was in this context that Abe expressed support for the UN arbitration process when Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario visited Tokyo in May (Philippine Star, May 23). At Shangri-La, Japan’s Defense Secretary Itsunori Onodera voiced support for a CoC and “strong ASEAN-centered institutional architecture” as a way to reduce tensions. But he also highlighted Japan’s more proactive approach to the dispute through the provision of capacity-building support for coast guard agencies in Southeast Asia. Earlier in the year, Tokyo agreed to transfer of up to 10 patrol boats to the Philippine Coast Guard worth $12 million (AFP, February 11). In a move certain to irritate China, Japan also is exploring the possibility of providing Vietnam with similar patrol boats provided it separates the coast guard from the armed forces (Kyodo, April 15).

The Outlook for 2013–2014

The outlook for the remainder of the year and into 2014 is status quo. There almost certainly will not be a “breakthrough” that leads to a resolution of the dispute, because the political will to pursue a legal or negotiated settlement is currently absent. The focus will remain on “conflict management,” primarily through the DoC/CoC process. While it is encouraging that China and ASEAN have begun tentative talks on the CoC, it is unrealistic to expect that an agreement will be ready to sign at the ASEAN-China Summit in October. ASEAN and China must negotiate and reach consensus on a complex and contentious set of issues, a process that is likely to take several years. China’s manifest lack of enthusiasm for any kind of code, let alone a robust and effective one of the kind America and Japan want to see, suggests Beijing will be content to draw out the discussions for as long as possible and work to ensure that the final product lacks teeth. In all probability the CoC is unlikely to significantly affect the central drivers of the dispute, mitigate tensions or prevent the occurrence of incidents at sea. 

As talks on the CoC proceed, the claimants will continue to uphold their claims rhetorically and through acts of administration, robustly asserting their perceived maritime rights and vigorously opposing the sovereignty-building activities of their rivals. A major conflict in the Spratlys is unlikely, but tense stand-offs at sea over energy and fishery resources could spark minor skirmishes.

At its summit in April, ASEAN maintained a veneer of unity on the South China Sea thanks to the adept diplomatic skills of Brunei. ASEAN solidarity, however, could be tested again at subsequent forums, including the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and ASEAN Regional Forum in late June/early July as well as the East Asia Summit in October. How the next ASEAN chair, Burma, tackles the dispute in 2014 will be something to watch, because currently Burma is rebalancing its foreign relations in an attempt to reduce dependence on China and improve relations with America, Japan, India, and Europe. Naypyidaw will try to replicate Brunei’s strategy of maintaining consensus within ASEAN over the South China Sea without antagonizing China (“China’s Strategic Recalibration in Burma,” China Brief, April 25). Unlike Brunei, however, Beijing has greater economic and hence political leverage over Burma.

So long as the dispute remains unresolved, ASEAN unity will continue to be put under strain and this in turn poses a challenge to the organization’s aspirations to maintain “centrality” in the regional security architecture building process. Its leaders will have to grapple with the growing number of thorny problems created by as the ASEAN chair recently put it, “an increasingly complex geopolitical environment”—a polite way of describing the seemingly intractable dispute in the South China Sea and the competition between Washington and Beijing for influence in Southeast Asia.


  1. All of the references to statements at the Shangri-La Dialogue hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, May 31–June 2, 2013, can found online <>.
  2. Ian Storey, “Japan’s Growing Angst over the South China Sea,” ISEAS Perspectives, No. 20, April 8, 2013, Available online <>.
  3. Shinzo Abe, “The Bounty of the Open Sea: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy,” Speeches and Statements by the Prime Minister, January 18, 2013, Available online