With its wealth of natural resources and potential power influence, the South China Sea has always been a high alert region. Tensions have risen to new heights in the years since Xi Jinping took power as both General Secretary of China Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China in 2012, as seen in the maritime disputes over the development of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The maritime climate in the South China Sea continues to grow hotter as China increases its activities in the region. South China Morning Post says that in August of this year, Chinese Navy conducted a week-long exercise in the Gulf of Tonkin despite warnings from the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration not to enter the zones. Their goal is to display the military power of China to the world and simultaneously protect their sovereignty and economic interests in the Southern region.
Neighboring Vietnam previously remained quiet on the issue of Chinese maritime expansion, largely due to China’s recognition of Vietnamese coastline boundaries in the 2000 agreement on Maritime Delimitation. However, noting the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) documentation of China’s increasingly unlawful activities like the construction of military bases and infrastructure in the Sea, the smaller Southeast Asian nation may be preparing to take a stronger stance on the issue in the near future.
The Maritime Executive reports that south of the nine-dash line, a boundary covering the maritime region for Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and China, a survey ship named Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered the region containing a large oil shelf close to the Vietnamese coastline and a Malaysian oil rig off the continental shelf. Taking issue with potential sovereignty infringement, Vietnam responded alongside Malaysia and Australia and condemned China’s actions, reports Radio Free Asia. In a joint statement between Vietnam and Malaysia, Prime Ministers Mahathir Mohamad and Nguyen Xuan Phuc emphasized the importance of maintaining peace and stability through diplomatic process instead of retaliation.
The Philippines remains completely silent on the issue of Chinese encroachment, reports Inquirer. Although the island country set an enormous precedent in winning their 2016 Hague arbitration against China over possession over the West Philippines Sea, experts on the issue note that President Rodrigo Duterte has been keener on cooperation for economic development with China rather than joining other states in challenging China’s influence.
On August 22, President Duterte visits President Xi of China in hope of encouraging more inter-state investment, according to The Hindu. While recognizing the result of the arbitration, both leaders swiftly put aside the topic in order to further their conversation on cooperation, which focused on ways in which they could jointly extract the oil supply within the disputed West Philippines Sea. By agreeing to further cooperation, negotiation on a consensual code of conduct for the South China Sea could be accelerated by 2021.
The nation of Brunei also favors economic cooperation with China rather than the need to voice a strong objection to the issue. Due to their need to enhance their Vision 2035 goal, Brunei is more interested in investing their time and resources to bolster their country economically rather than strengthen their power militarily. The Diplomat reports that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei insists their relationship can be a strategic one, which would further strengthen China’s influence in the area.
Though essential to continued peace in the region, the goal of other Southeast Asian states to maintain the balance of power with China is not realistic without the assistance of a major world power such as the United States. Despite a strong assertion of influence in the region, the Washington Examiner reports that the USS Ronald Reagan sails through the South China Sea promoting the message of “Peace through Strength”.
Following this action, the naval forces of the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam set sail together in anticipation of a scheduled joint maritime drill, carried out within the week of September 9 through 13, according to The Phnom Penh Post. With the United States leading the way, the drill and other joint actions in the near future will hopefully enhance military cooperation between ASEAN countries in the case of Chinese provocation or retaliation.