Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Case for Cooperation - South China Sea and Beyond

By Vanessa OlguinPublished May 2, 2019

A section of islands in the South China Sea.
After years of tensions with China, it may be time to try a different tactic. South-East Asian countries may have a lot to gain from a stable cooperative relationship with an increasingly powerful China.

Miles out from the turquoise blue waters filled with tropical fish and colorful corals of the Philippine Island of Palawan stands an artificial island built on top of Mischief Reef, a stretch of Philippine territory seized by China in 1995.

China’s broadening control of this region through its construction of military bases stirred unease on the part of the surrounding countries–Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei–all of whom have alleged territorial claims but lack the needed equipment and firepower to challenge China’s aggressive actions.

However, China’s influence will only continue to grow, thus it is in the best interests of its neighbors to cooperate with this world power and lessen dependence on America.

China’s thriving economy has resulted in an improved and modernized naval arsenal. Since becoming the world’s largest navy last year, the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China continues to expand its fleet; in the last decade, the PLA Navy has even built more than 100 warships and submarines–a greater naval fleet than all but a handful of nations. China has proceeded with sustained military spending. Just two years ago, China’s naval warships and submarines amounted to 317 as opposed to 283 in the United States Navy. This increase has been maintained by a consistently growing defense budget, which is now second to the United States’ defense spending.

The PLA Navy has used is growing naval influence to re-animate their territorial claims, specifically testing the American military in the waters by claiming reefs and shoals  around the disputed Taiwan and in the controversial South China Sea.

These territorial claims include Mischief Reef and the Spratly Islands, which Vietnam and the Philippines both claim parts of. Historically, these countries have relied on the U.S. to enforce international law and confront China’s aggression, which cements China’s security dilemma. Thus this dilemma, directly relates to China’s strategy of maintained aggression: controlling resources or land outside their territory, in order to protect their own possessions, a topic.

This, in turn, translates as hostility to the international community and leads to regional tension and calls to restrain China. Consequently, increased U.S. involvement, especially under this current administration, may be doing more harm than good by unnecessarily escalating conflict with a nation whose power is on route to surpass America’s.

Contrary to the Obama Administration, which focused more on diplomacy, the Trump Administration has taken a tougher stance on China, specifically increasing the amount of its Freedom of Navigation Operations–or FONOps–in the South China Sea.  However, Beijing views these actions as hostile, then communicating a strong warning to the administration: “The more ships you send to the contested waters of the South China Sea, the more we will bolster our presence there.”

Instead of ensuring peace, China and the U.S. are seemingly on their way to conflict. The current administration’s stricter policy is not a sufficient answer to satisfy historically complex and sensitive disputes. Instead of focusing on collaboration, the U.S. is relying more on its compulsory power. This term–commonly used in International Politics– means the ability of one country to compel another country to act in a certain way, usually desirable to the first country. Since the 1940s, the U.S. has held this privileged power, asking countries for compliance while dangling the risk of economic sanctions or military intervention if talks fell through.

But China–on its way to becoming the top economic world power–is not an easily submissive country and will not become one soon.

What, then, is the right way to deal with China? Is compliant cooperation, with this aggressive world power, the only way to go for countries in the region?

In an unusual step away from precedent, the current Philippine Administration is taking a much softer stance on China. Historically, the Philippines has been one of the foremost South-East Asian countries to dispute Chinese claims to the South China Sea. In 2013, the Philippines even pursued the Spratly Islands dispute to the international Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Finally in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration declared that claims of Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and submerged reefs were not legitimate and instead “within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines.” The unanimous ruling in favor of the Philippines finally formally condemned China for its aggressive actions.

Yet, it never went into full effect. Beijing refused to accept the rulings, with Xi Jinping stating that China’s sovereignty and territorial rights would not be affected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision. The subsequent election of President Rodrigo Duterte produced a dramatic shift of Philippine foreign policy relating to China. He decreased pressure on China and did not enforce the international ruling, claiming that stressing the South China Sea issue and Spratly Islands dispute is not practical for the Philippines”. Especially, as the Philippines’ options are limited and could potentially undermine the continued rapprochement with China.

Duterte’s unprecedented foreign policy reversal represents the lack of an enforcement mechanism to implement these international decisions. More pressingly, it also represents a significant trend of cooperation among some South-East Asian nations.

In this particular case, Duterte reasoned that being friendly towards China over this dispute would eventually pay off, and it has. In the past few years, Chinese-Philippine relationship has warmed up; with Beijing even providing 370 million pesos–a little over 7 million US dollars– in military support, as well as another 6 million pieces of ammunition and 3000 rifles. Singapore has also been steadfast in its cooperation with China, and recently reaffirmed its commitment to conduct more joint military drills. Recent actions by the Chinese government have already begun strengthening their defense relationships with South-East Asian countries.  

With the absence of an international enforcement structure, incentives for South-East Asian countries to cooperate with China will only continue to increase. Enduring tensions with America may also harm any potential harmony for its South-East Asian allies and China.  Instead of heavy involvement in a region far from home, America should assist these countries by providing new technology and modern ships to encourage them to exercise their own abilities in maintaining peace. Using these resources, these countries can conduct their own Freedom of Navigation Operations, while learning to build a stable relationship with their regional hegemon, China. With America’s backing and negotiated Chinese support, South-East Asian countries should also explore the potential creation of an enforcement mechanism for their region. Such a mechanism would allow American ships to take a step back from its occupancy in this region and allow for South-East Asian countries to employ their own autonomy in keeping the peace with their neighbors.