Dr. Wu Shicun on the South China Sea issue
Dr. Wu says Beijing must stay vigilant against strong interference in the South China Sea issue from non-regional countries
Good morning! It's hard to believe we're almost at the close of 2023. Despite the chilly weather here in Beijing, I've never been fond of layering up, which unfortunately led to a few days of a nasty cough recently. I hope you're all taking good care of yourselves and are set to end the year on a high note.
I've been sharing several articles by Mr. Weijian Shan lately, which have become some of the most popular pieces ever featured in Ginger River Review. If you haven't had a chance to read them, I recommend checking out Mr. Shan's latest opinion piece in the SCMP. It offers a succinct yet comprehensive view of China's economy, similar to what we've published but more condensed.
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Recent developments in the South China Sea have led to escalating tensions, with the Philippines and Australia conducting maritime and aerial patrols in the region over the past weekend. The Chinese military has stated that it deployed naval and air forces to “track, monitor and warn away” an American vessel. Meanwhile, the US claims that the ship was "asserting navigational rights in the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law".
The South China Sea issue has always been a focal point in discussions concerning China. Recently, I've had the opportunity to meet several scholars specializing in this field. I must admit that I am not an expert on the South China Sea, but it seems that prior research by Chinese academics in this area may not be widely known outside China. Therefore, today, I have selected an interview conducted by The Paper with 吴士存 Wu Shicun, a Chinese academic expert on the South China Sea.
Dr. Wu is Chairman of Huayang Research Center for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance and Chairman of the Academic Committee, National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Dr Wu’s research interests cover the history and geography of the South China Sea, maritime delimitation, maritime economy, international relations and regional security strategy.
The interview, conducted by The Paper at the 'Symposium on Global Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance' in Sanya, Hainan Province, China, from Nov. 8 to 9, was published on the National Institute for South China Studies' WeChat account on Nov. 15.
I have put the highlights of the interview at the beginning to save your time. The complete translated interview follows, providing additional details for those interested in delving deeper into this topic.
The Philippines' South China Sea policy has become more provocative under the new president, influenced by the U.S. and domestic politics. In fact, Philippine military is a part of elite contingents developed and supported by the U.S. The Philippines also underestimated China’s resolve and capabilities to take necessary countermeasures.
The U.S. plays a significant role in the provocations, aiming to leverage its allies and partners to ease pressure and share the costs of maintaining hegemony. Non-regional involvement becomes an important lever for the U.S. to contain China, activating and enhancing its alliance system.
In the future, China and the Philippines face two hurdles in stabilizing relations –– the South China Sea issue and the U.S. influence. The U.S. seeks to widen disputes and create a rift between the two nations as part of its South China Sea policy.
U.S.-led militarization of the South China Sea has become the biggest negative factor weighing on peace and stability in the region. In the future, there may be so-called “joint patrols” in the South China Sea, all clearly targeted at China.
Despite the strong interference from non-regional countries, the overall situation in the South China Sea remains stable and controllable. The likelihood of a major conflict between China and the U.S. or other non-regional countries in the South China Sea is low, as the two countries have put in place mature crisis management mechanisms.
In response to non-regional countries’ increasing interference in the South China Sea, China should: First, continue to enhance capacity building. China is not powerful enough, otherwise other countries would be deterred from taking provocations. Second, facilitate Code of Conduct (COC) consultations and yield more substantial outcomes. Third, promote pragmatic maritime cooperation and enhance mutual trust.
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In a recent event, Canadian National Defense Minister Bill Blair said on November 3 that Chinese warplanes circled over and fired flares at a Canadian military helicopter over “international waters” of the South China Sea on October 29, adding “the incidents had put the crew in danger,” Global Times reported. The CH-148 Cyclone helicopter took off from the Royal Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Ottawa. The Ottawa’s helicopter, said Major Rob Millen, air officer aboard the Ottawa, had two encounters with Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy J-11 fighter jets over “international waters” on October 29, and the fighter got as close as 100 feet (about 30 meters) from the helicopter in the second time.
In response, Zhang Xiaogang, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, said on November 4 that the Ottawa had dispatched two sorties of ship-borne helicopters to approach China’s territorial air space in Xisha Islands in the South China Sea with unknown intentions. The PLA followed proper procedures by sending aircraft and vessels to identify and verify the intentions of the Canadian helicopter and issued multiple warnings. However, the Canadian helicopter not only refused to respond but also took provocative actions such as flying at ultra-low altitude, Zhang said. The Canadian side then widely exaggerated and hyped the incident through the media, with baseless accusations and smears directed at China, Zhang added. The move by the Canadian side violated China’s domestic laws and relevant international laws, endangered China’s sovereignty and security, and was a malicious provocative act with ulterior motives.
Since the beginning of this year, supported by the United States, the Philippines has been keen to draw non-regional countries, especially major powers, in the South China Sea issue, bringing some disturbing changes in the South China Sea situation. Canada is one of them. Philippine military earlier claimed that other countries including Canada are open to a joint sail in the South China Sea.
On September 4, Philippine military said Philippine and U.S. navies conducted a bilateral sail in the South China Sea the same day. The Philippine Navy’s guided missile frigate BRP Jose Rizal and the US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson participated in the joint sail. “This event aims to provide an opportunity for the Philippine Navy and the US Indo-Pacific Navy to test and refine existing maritime doctrine,” the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command said.
Japan and Australia “expressed willingness” to take part in joint maritime patrols with the Philippines and the U.S. in the South China Sea, and Canada is open to the idea, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar said.
The Paper: In the past, non-regional countries making waves in the South China Sea were mainly the U.S., the United Kingdom and other countries with a strong navy. Canada has a much weaker navy than the U.S. and the U.K., but it is also causing a stir in the region. How do you see Canada's provocations in the South China Sea?
Dr. Wu: Geopolitical interests are the main consideration here. Canada wrongly thinks China intends to “contain” the South China Sea. Misled by that idea, Canada attempts to interfere in the South China Sea issue now in preparation for pursuing geopolitical interests in the future.
There is another important reason. Canada is doing so at the instigation of the Philippines and the U.S. If the two didn’t “play petty tricks” behind its back, Canada wouldn’t have meddled in the region far away from it. Since 2021, the U.S., Japan, Australia, and some regional countries have been keen on forming so-called “factions” and “cliques”. For example, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), an informal strategic dialogue between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, and the tripartite AUKUS alliance, a military pact among the U.S., Britain and Australia are both U.S.-led security “factions”. This May, the U.S. and the Philippines signed the Bilateral Defense Guidelines. In September, naval vessels from the two countries kicked off a joint sail in the South China Sea, in an attempt to establish a mechanism for coordination among the U.S., the Philippines, Japan, and Australia in the region. Canada is likely to join them too.
The Paper: Why is the Philippines wooing non-regional countries to meddle in the South China Sea?
Dr. Wu: Since Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. took office as the Philippine president, the country’s policy on the South China Sea issue has seen some changes, driven by influence from the U.S. and domestic political factors. Besides, given that the Philippine military is in fact a part of elite contingents developed and supported by the U.S., the Philippine military and its Coast Guard naturally have had a greater impulse to reinforce the warship illegally “grounded” at Ren’ai Jiao in China’s Nansha Qundao, while also causing ongoing disturbance around China’s Huangyan Island.
Another reason why the Philippines has made frequent risky moves is its strategists and decision-makers underestimated China’s resolve and capabilities to take necessary countermeasures. Considering its limited strength, the Philippines wishes to show power by drawing other countries like Japan, Australia, and Canada in the South China Sea, while working with the U.S. to cause a stir in the region.
The U.S. has shifted from a neutral stance to take sides with anyone who confronts China and makes trouble for China regarding the South China Sea issue. The U.S. has played a role behind the scenes as the Philippines unilaterally destroyed its agreement with China concerning Ren’ai Jiao and temporary special arrangements China has made for the Philippines to deliver necessary life supplies such as food to the “grounded” military vessel, and attempted to occupy China’s Huangyan Island illegally, and as Vietnam carried out construction on some islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Qundao it has illegally occupied.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has been seeking to contain China by forming “factions” and through the “small yard, high fence” strategy in the name of protecting national security. The U.S. hopes to rely on its allies and partners to lessen its pressure and help share the cost of maintaining its hegemony. So it is no wonder more non-regional countries are being drawn in the South China Sea issue, which is an important lever for the U.S. to contain China. And this will help activate and strengthen the alliance system dominated by the U.S.
[Note: The “small yard, high fence” strategy means the U.S. administration identifies critical American technology directly related to the so-called “national security” (small yard) and delineates boundaries to protect its technological competitiveness (high fence).]
This year, when I attended the 8th Manila Forum, jointly held by the Association for Philippines-China Understanding and the Chinese Embassy in Manila, I directly felt that the relatively stable China-Philippines relations are being disturbed and even destroyed by the increasingly escalating and strengthening military and security interaction between the Philippines and the U.S.
In the future, China and the Philippines still have two hurdles to overcome in order to stabilize bilateral relations. First, the South China Sea issue. Second, the influence of the U.S. in bilateral relations. The U.S. has regarded widening the disputes and creating a rift between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea as part of its policy on the South China Sea issue.
The Paper: How will the interference from non-regional countries, especially some major powers, affect the situation in the South China Sea?
Dr. Wu: U.S.-led militarization of the South China Sea has become the biggest negative factor weighing on peace and stability in the region. Some non-regional countries carried out military actions unseen at any time since the end of the Cold War in the South China Sea, including conducting various forms of military exercises, frequently sending vessels and aircraft for close-in reconnaissance, and frequently moving large combat platforms in and out of the region. These military actions were mostly carried out in sensitive waters and airspace. In the future, there may be so-called “joint patrols” in the South China Sea. All these are clearly targeted at China.
Strong interference from non-regional countries brings greater instability to the situation in the South China Sea, and comes as a crucial factor complicating the situation. But the overall situation remains stable and controllable. Consultations on the text of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea are underway. The second round of review has been completed as planned and the third round has started. At the bilateral level, China and other countries like the Philippines have set up an emergency communication hotline between their foreign ministries, and developed fruitful dialogues. These will lay a foundation for the situation in the South China Sea to stabilize and improve.
Some worry that the interference from non-regional countries could cause frictions to escalate and even lead to conflicts. But I think the likelihood of a big conflict arising between China and the U.S. or other non-regional countries in the South China Sea is low. Other countries would not act rashly if the U.S. didn’t take action. After contesting with each other and groping their way forward for years, China and the U.S. have put in place a set of relatively mature crisis management mechanisms. At present, the two sides are still testing each other’s bottom line regarding the South China Sea. Once a conflict occurs, it would have tragic consequences for the two countries, the whole region, and even the entire international system.
The Paper: How should China respond to non-regional countries’ increasing interference in the South China Sea?
Dr. Wu: I think China should work in three ways.
First, continue to enhance capacity building. Why are some non-regional countries and countries around the South China Sea stepping up unilateral action in the region and challenging China’s rights, interests, and claims? I think a very important reason is China is not powerful enough to deter them. Otherwise those countries with ulterior motives would think carefully before they take unilateral action and infringe upon China’s interests. So China’s Navy and Coast Guard should better integrate to provide a deterrent, not to attack others, but to safeguard the country’s legitimate rights, interests, and claims.
Second, facilitate COC consultations and yield more substantial outcomes. In July, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries announced that the second round of text review for the COC had been completed, and signed guidelines to advance the COC negotiations. As the negotiations enter the third round, the divergences, the conflicts and the dilemmas of all parties will gradually surface. The previous two rounds of review did not address core, sensitive issues such as geographical scope, and implementation mechanisms. One need not go into the details to imagine how challenging it will be for 11 countries to reach a consensus on these issues. For the sake of political gain, the Philippines and Vietnam may want the COC to be launched as late as possible.
Third, promote pragmatic maritime cooperation and enhance mutual trust. Maritime cooperation is a responsibility and obligation coastal states should assume under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and a main objective of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC provides that relevant countries should cooperate on five areas: marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, safety of navigation and communication at sea, search and rescue operations, and combating transnational crime.
Under the DOC framework, the countries involved should lay down a list of tasks for maritime cooperation, beginning with projects on which consensus has been reached, based on the principles of progressing, in an easy-to-start manner, “within a narrow range, in less sensitive areas, and from bilateral to multilateral”, to ensure substantial progress in South China Sea maritime cooperation that is consensus and outcome oriented.