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The South China Sea dispute has persisted since last century and it is yet to find a solution. The conflict has its roots in a fight over resources and differences over sovereignty. 2020 had an optimistic begining but the Covic-19 upset all calculations. China has chosen to use this adversity to make gains in the South China Sea. This has implications for China’s neighbours especialy Vietnam and other big powers like the US, Japan Australia and India.

The conflict in South China Sea overhang has been a contributory factor accelerating the military modernisation and defence procurement programmes of South East Asian countries. At the start of 2020 there was a great deal of optimism for the Indo-Pacific while some concern was expressed that it would continue to be at the centre of geo-political and geo-economic ,and major power contestation. This year assumed importance also because Vietnam assumed the Chairmanship of ASEAN. Vietnam also joins as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in the 2021 period. It also marks the 25th year of its admittance to ASEAN. Vietnam had also set out its priorities for this year which were meant to have implications for ASEAN and the larger Indo-Pacific region. A preview of this could be seen in the latest Vietnam’s Defence White Paper, with its 4 ‘No’s’. (no military alliance, no affiliation with one country to counteract the other, no foreign military base in the Vietnamese territory). But the Covid-19 Pandemic went on to overwhelm not just the Indo-Pacific but the entire globe and overturned most predictions and calculations for the region. The Pandemic was not a Black Swan event , and in many ways it only re-established and re-confirmed the trends that already existed. The developments in the South China Sea, atleast seem to point in that direction.

Even as the world was grappling with the Covid-19 Pandemic, China (making some recovery) got back to its ambitious goal of reasserting itself in the South China Sea. China had prepared the ground for a series of moves that were to follow in April by shooting of diplomatic notes to the United Nations, first on December 12, 2019 and then on March 23, which though were in response to the maritime claims of the Philippines and Malaysia, had adverse implications for the sovereignty claims of Vietnam over islands in the East Sea (South China Sea), including over the Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands. Vietnam responded with a Note Verbale on 30 March rejecting these claims. Vietnam issue d another Note Verbale on 10 April asserting its position in the East Sea and spoke at press conferences respectively on 20 and 21 April. On 23 April a Vietnamese spokesperson said: “As a coastal state, Viet Nam is entitled to all maritime zones in the East Sea established on the basis of UNCLOS; all maritime claims that are not in accordance with UNCLOS and violate Viet Nam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over Viet Nam’s maritime zones are invalid.”1

Vietnam was faced with three provocations from China: first an attack on its fishing boat, second Beijing’s establishment of two administrative districts on islands claimed by Vietnam and third its naming 80 geographical entities in the South China Sea. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard maritime surveillance vessel, rammed against a Vietnamese fishing trawler near the Paracel islands. Vietnam lodged a complaint with the United Nations. The very next day the Vietnamese

Foreign Ministry spokesperson demanded an investigation by China into the incident and “strict action against the Chinese vessel and refrain from repeating such acts in future as well as pay proper compensation for the damage caused to the Vietnamese fishermen.” Vietnam considered it an infrigement on it’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa Islands which it claims on historical and legal grounds. Vietnam further noted that it ran counter to the common understanding reached between the leaders of the two countries on the humane treatment of fishermen of the two countries and contravened the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), complicates the situation and is not conducive to the development of the bilateral relations between the two countries as well as the maintenance of peace, stability and cooperation in the East Sea (South China Sea).The US department of State on its part, condemning the incident, expressed its serious concern.

But it would appear that whatever the differences on the South China Sea front, the trade relations between Vietnam and China are expected to continue without too much deviation. The two sides held telephonic discussions on April 17 to identify measures at addressing the growing backlog of Vietnamese exports at border areas since the beginning of this month.the South China Sea front.

On 18 April China announced the establishment of two administrative districts: Xi Sha on Paracels islands and Nansha on Spratlys islands. The two were put under the control of Sansha City by Beijing. The next Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson criticising the move said: “The establishment of the so-called Sansha City and related activities seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty,” she further added: “Vietnam demands that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and abolish its wrongful decisions,” Vietnam circulated a note verbale.

This was followed by another move, in complete defiance of international law- China’s MInistry of Natural Resources and its Ministry of Civil Affairs listed the names and coordinates of 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges, 55 of them submerged in water.

Among the ASEAN countries that came out with a statement in solidarity with Vietnam is the Philippines. Its statement of 8 April stated:

“The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) expresses deep concern over the reported sinking on 03 April 2020 of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea. Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it; and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen. We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam.” As the Philippines statement went on: “because Philippines values the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea and notes that such incidents undermine the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China. Given the positive momentum on the discussions on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), it is crucial that such incidents be avoided and that differences be addressed in a manner that enhances dialogue and mutual trust.” The Philippines reminded China of the ASEAN-China joint commitment to collectively tackle the pandemic in the Statement of the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), issued on 20 February 2020. Significantly, it said: “There is never a good time to indulge in provocations; they usually end in defeat of aggression or a devastating price of victory. But it is always a good time to rise in the defense and affirmation of our respective sovereignties and in the peace and stability of our region especially in a time of pandemic”.The Philippines later lodged a diplomatic protest against China’s naming of two new districts on islands in the South China Sea and attack on a Philipppines Navy vessel.

Besides Vietnam and the Philippines, it was Malaysia that had to deal with Beijing while simultaneously fighting the Covid-19 Crisis. The Malaysian exploration vessel West Capella (belonging to Petronas) was tagged by the notorious Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 in South China Sea some 200km off the Malaysian coast (within Malaysia’s EEZ); besides it was accompanied by a Chinese coastguard vessel. Malaysia’s slow response prompted criticism from a former Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman who said that the inaction of the government over the presence of a flotilla within Malaysia’s maritime area was a great disservice to the nation and “may be construed as acquiescence by interested parties and would be detrimental to our strategic interests”.

The Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein merely spoke of the need for the South China Sea to remain a sea of peace and trade. He stressed on the need to avoid unintended, accidental incidents in these waters. He said: “While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that may result in miscalculations and may affect peace, security and stability in the region”. It may be recalled that Malaysia had anticipated this in its first Defence White Paper (December 2019) where it had highlighted the growing threat from tension in the South China Sea and terrorism, although it failed to map out a detailed strategy for 2020.

The Chinese double standards, in coercing its smaller neighbours in the South China Sea on the one hand and insisting that others be sensitive to its concerns about Taiwan and Tibet, is becoming increasingly evident. Similarly Chinese behaviour is seen as duplictous when in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic it uses aggression in the South China Sea while indulging in ‘mask diplomacy’.

The US Navy said: ”Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose an unprecedented threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight and the right of innocent passage of all ships”. The US State Departkment had earlier said that Beijing was attempting to coerce its neighbours. 2 Condemning the incident, it had expressed its serious concern. Meanwhile, the US Navy had positioned three ships in the South China Sea: USS America (amphibious assault ship) and the USS Bunker Hill, (guided missile cruiser), and the USS Barry (a destroyer) undertook FONOPS near the Paracels islands in the South China Sea. These were joined by Australia’s frigate HMAS Parramatta , for a joint exercise in the South China Sea. This move of the US was on expected lines as it was expected to continue its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the SCS to ensure international access to their waterway. Although President Trump had proposed ASEAN-US Summit in 2020 it had to be deferred due to the Pandemic. His poor track record of attending ASEAN-led meetings had not been a good augury for the Vietnam meetings scheduled for 2020.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi too had protested against the intrusion of Chinese vessels into Japanese waters near the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

According to one Indian strategic expert Chinese moves in the South China Sea occured close to the Indian Ocean and targetted India’s close friends, Vietnam and Indonesia.3 China’s activity in the Indian Ocean had increased “particularly the presence of Chinese research and survey vessels in India’s EEZ.”4 From India’s perspective its proactive Act East Policy which was unveiled in 2014 by Prime Minister Modi, is expected to continue in the post Covid period also. India now has a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) which will help consolidate its security policy between its three wings of armed forces. Also with Harsh Vardhan Shringla as the new Foreign Secretary, the new year could see greater attention to its eastern neighborhood and organizations like ASEAN and BIMSTEC. India, criticized for opting out of the RCEP negotiations among the 16 countries (10 ASEAN plus Australia, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) could possibly join in 2020 (according to some reports) if its concerns on Rules of Origin, and market access (especially in services) were met.

Conclusion: Because the South China Sea was such a potentially volatile part of the Indo-Pacific , it was hoped that China and ASEAN will continue to engage on the Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations in 2020. With ASEAN calendar ‘virtually’ thrown to the winds, and many schedule meetings postponed, and ASEAN States internally too preoccupied with the medical, economic and political crisis and China continuing to create new conditions on the ground is it possible that the world may either not be prepared to deal with the resultant South China Sea situation or would the 2021 CoC deadline (which has progressed to an SDNT (Single Draft Negotiating Text) get extended further? It remains to be seen whether the existing global trends get further strengthened or the recent crisis forces nation states to carve a new path.

1 http://www.mofa.gov.vn/en/tt_baochi/pbnfn/ns200424150031/view Also see “Vietnam protests Beijing’s expansion in disputed South China Sea”, Japan Times, 20 April 2020, at

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/04/20/asia-pacific/vietnam-protests-beijings-expansion-disputed-south-china-sea/#.XqPIxC9h1bg

2 ’US destroyer sails through South China Sea waters China claims’ , 30 April 2020 at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/destroyer-sails-south-china-sea-waters-china-claims-200430025536193.html

3 Indrani Bagchi, “Beijing’s aggressive South China Sea push amid pandemic worries India” 26 April 2020 at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/75393720.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppsthttps://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/beijings-aggressive-south-china-sea-push-amid-pandemic-worries-india-us/articleshow/75393720.cms

4 Ibid.

DR. UDAI BHANU SINGH IS SENIOR RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AND HEAD OF THE SOUTHEAST ASIA AND OCEANIA CENTRE AT THE MANOHAR PARRIKAR INSTITUTE FOR DEFENCE STUDIES, (MP-IDSA), NEW DELHI.

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