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Maritime Security in the South China Sea: Coercion or Consensus?

Written by Jacob Dickinson


After two years of canceled meetings due to COVID-19, on 15 May 2022, China’s Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry of Information Zhao Lijian called for face-to-face consultations on a renewed code of conduct between the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Considering that the PRC is currently experiencing severe lockdowns due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, why has Beijing called for these negotiations to go ahead? The PRC’s use of coercive force in the SCS adds to escalating regional tensions in the Asia-Pacific. The prospect of an invasion of Taiwan, Sri Lanka’s escalating social and political crisis, and North Korea’s test-firing of ballistic missiles pose dire challenges to stability in the wider region. Whether a code of conduct can ease escalating tensions and accommodate the interests of all claimants in the SCS remains an open question.

Competing Claims

The South China Sea (SCS) covers an area of over 3,000 square kilometers and includes a wide range of resources and strategic routes. As well as comprising land and islands, the SCS consists of significant oil and gas deposits. The SCS is also vital for fishing communities in the region as an important source of income and food. Located at the center of the most economically dynamic region in the world, up to 40% of maritime trade between the EU and Asia is conducted through the SCS.

The strategic value of the SCS has also been met with competing claims which go back decades. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claimed the ‘nine-dash line’ encompassing around 90% of the SCS as an area of historic exclusive sovereignty. This line was meant to demarcate a maritime claim to the reefs and rocks of the South China Sea, yet Beijing has interpreted the line as an area of exclusive sovereignty. This is by far the largest claim on the SCS, but other states in the region also have disputed claims. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), signed in 1982, signatory states have the right to develop resources within 400km of their coasts. As a result, disputes have frequently arisen through diplomatic, force and direct coercion between claimant states.

Changing Security Environment

South China Sea claims map
Image 1, Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

The code of conduct was first conceived by ASEAN member states as a response to the PRC’s military occupation of the Mischief Reef over 25 years ago. A multilateral agreement was reached in 2002 in Phnom Penh, with both Beijing and ASEAN seeking to avoid US involvement in regional affairs. Since then, progress on a new code of conduct has been slow. There is little agreement on fundamental issues; the code’s geographic scope, outright bans on the seizure of land and whether the agreement will be binding on all signatory states. Beijing is reluctant to agree to a code of conduct that could constrain its future actions in the SCS. ASEAN member states such as Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, have little direct interest in the SCS and prefer to keep security issues away from deepening economic relations with the PRC. This came to the surface when, in 2016, a prepared communique between the PRC and ASEAN member states was resolutely retracted due to objections from Beijing and member states.

The SCS faces a vastly different security situation when compared with that of 2002. Since 2007, Beijing’s assertiveness through coercion to control the SCS has risen dramatically. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has built military complexes with airstrips and ports on constructed islands. Chinese State-Owned Enterprises regularly drill for oil and gas within other claimant’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). This trend has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The PRC unilaterally claims two administrative districts covering the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, both of which are claimed by Vietnam. The PLA Navy launches regular patrol boats and military exercises with the PRC’s most advanced destroyer.

Toward Consensus?

While the PRC has often exploited divisions within ASEAN member states to enhance its own interests, there are indications of ASEAN taking a more unified stance. The PRC has begun to provoke other actors in the region through drilling and land seizures. Beijing demanded in 2021 that Indonesia stop drilling for oil and gas in the Natuna Islands. In response, Indonesia invited counterparts from Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam to ‘foster brotherhood’ against Beijing’s assertiveness in the SCS. Indonesia’s size and political weight could provide a basis for more consensus among ASEAN states to counter China’s aggression.

Analysts have also pointed to the use of legal and diplomatic means to resolve tensions in the region. In 2012, Chinese fishing vessels entered the Scarborough Shoal and the Philippines reacted by sending Coast Guards. After a month-long stand-off between the PLA Navy and the Philippine Navy, the PRC coerced the Philippines through informal sanctions on agricultural products. In response, the Philippines brought a case against the PRC for violating the UNCLOS treaty. The arbitrary tribunal ruled that the ‘nine-dash line’ had no historical basis and no basis in international law. However, the Philippines' former president, Rodrigo Duterte has refused to attempt to enforce the ruling and the PLA navy has remained on the Shoal.

However, the 2016 ruling has dealt a blow to the legal legitimacy of the PRC’s maritime claims to the ‘nine-dash line’ and could set a precedent for other claimant states. Vietnam is the most vulnerable to Beijing’s military pressure. The PRC’s invasion of Vietnam in 1978 and frequently coercive exchanges have led to deteriorating relations between the two countries. After China sent a ship for months-long seismic survey in Vietnam’s internationally designated EEZ, Hanoi issued a warning on bringing legal proceedings against the PRC in 2019. Other actors such as the EU and the US have supported it and other claimant states could take similar actions.

Why is Beijing Pushing for a Code of Conduct?

The call for a code of conduct has been looming since 2019, but COVID-19 has delayed further negotiations. However, Zhao Lijian's call for the finalization of a code of conduct comes at an important time for three reasons. First, the yearly rotating ASEAN chair is held by Cambodia. Hun Sen, the country's authoritarian leader, seeks to promote economic ties with China and has little interest in the SCS. It is far from certain that the PRC has complete diplomatic support from Burma, Laos and Thailand, but Beijing could gain additional support for a new code of conduct in line with its own interests.

Second, the newly elected president of the Philippines and son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Jr pledged during the 2022 general election campaign to work closely with China. Although every leader in Southeast Asia acknowledges the PRC’s economic and diplomatic influence, Marcos has argued that the 2016 ruling was ineffective and Manila will seek a bilateral code of conduct instead of at a regional level. Yet this should not overcompensate for the strategic realities facing the Philippines. There have been protests against China’s aggression and the PRC is far more unpopular when compared with the US. Up to 42% of the Philippines have a favorable view of China compared to 80% of the US. Should Marcos be seen to deliberately play to Beijing’s interests, he could see his popularity fall dramatically. It is uncertain whether Marcos’ entrance to Malacanang Palace could result in an agreement more conducive to Beijing’s interests.

Lastly, the US-ASEAN meeting on 15 May 2022 reinforced Beijing’s worries of encirclement in its perceived sphere of influence. The US provided military commitments to the region. Japan has reiterated its concerns over Beijing’s assertiveness and offered new patrol boats to Indonesia and other allies. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently stated that, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration's long-term aim is to shape the strategic environment to counter the PRC’s aggressive actions. Beijing is aware of the relative cohesion of the West against Russia as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In this context, the code of conduct could recalibrate the PRC’s foreign policy toward the SCS as a partner for ASEAN countries, presenting itself as a collaborative partner to ASEAN.

Future outlook

As General Secretary Xi Jinping continues the zero-COVID policy, the PRC’s collapse in economic growth and its ensuing global economic slowdown could potentially lead to further escalation in the region. While the code of conduct negotiations could lead to better management of tense relationships, it could also entrench the asymmetry between ASEAN and the PRC. The code of conduct will have immediate effects on the sovereignty and security of the region. Without accountability, the next two decades could resemble the previous two decades; rising tensions, a breach of national sovereignty and further instability in a region with acute security challenges.

2022-05-27 China ASEAN code of conduct
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About the author: Jacob Dickinson

Jacob studies Global Political Economy at Leiden University. He is passionate about international development and is looking to expand his expertise in geopolitics and crisis management. Curious about other cultures, he has traveled to Europe and Asia for both academic study and professional purposes. His expertise includes subjects like the geopolitics of energy, China’s international political economy, and the implications of globalized supply chains for industrial policy. He is particularly interested in the evolving political and economic relationships between China and ASEAN, and the consequences for regional development and security.

The article was edited by Alessia Cappelletti.

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